From where I sit, I hear the rain. I see it and smell it, too. Fresh, yet metal-y on the pavement; wet and glistening on the green grass dotted with dandelions down below. I see small drops drip on the wooden table outside. The same wooden table that I sat at an hour ago, eating rhubarb yogurt with fresh fruit and muesli. I’m so glad I removed the cushions before coming back in. I’m not at my house, after all. Rather, I’m in Zurich, Switzerland, at the lakeside home of my friend Pete who invited me here a while back.
“Come here and write,” he said, as if it were that easy and I could do so on command. “You can see the lake from bed and smell the chocolate coming from the Lindt factory each morning.”
It had such a romantic ring to it: “Come here and write. It smells like chocolate.”
I pictured myself, day in, day out, writing with a view of a lake whilst whiffing cocoa and listening to birds chirp.
What I seem to be getting, though, is Chevy Chase in Funny Farm, who drove himself mad from the quiet and inability to just sit and create.
[Brief interlude, during which I took the 165 bus to a Tinder date up the road, stopped at the local Coop supermarket to pick up provisions for dinner and breakfast because it’s too damn expensive to eat out, ate said provisions (a microwaveable meal of spaetzle and chicken with about 10 linzer cookies for dessert), finished a book (The Girl on a Train), watched The Voice (in French), watched Backdraft (in English), checked Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, swiped “yes” a few times and “no” a whole lot more on Tinder, before finally falling asleep.]
And now here I sit again, staring out at the same lake view (sans smell of chocolate—Pete, what’s up with that?) listening to birds chirping, church bells ringing and feeling the sun shining on my face.
This is nice, I admit to myself through grit teeth. If only I could enjoy it. Use it. Go beyond it—without actually moving my feet or my somersaulting mind.
Instead, all I can think is I’m still writing the same blog, wondering what other activities I could throw into the mix to keep from actually just sitting still. Probably not what Pete had in mind when he suggested I come use his lake house as a writing retreat.
But, as many of you know, I am not accustomed to vacationing. The type of travel where your head is not in a map or guidebook, and your feet don’t ache from walking all day.
While Pete’s point was to come and just “be,” in the back of my mind I always knew I’d “just be” on the hunt for stories or trends or interesting people worth profiling. It’s just how I do, especially now that “how I do” is also “how I make a living.” Plus, is this whole watching the rain, sniffing around for the scent of chocolate, listening to the birds chirp and church bells ring even travel? Surely that church is climbable, its Chagall windows viewable from the inside, no? Or what about that chocolate factory? Can’t I get my Willy Wonka on?
I wondered this last night [editor’s note: Friday], while beating myself up for not wanting to join the neighbors downstairs who were making a racket until 2a.m. dancing to ABBA.
Does it count if I’m not busy exploring or meeting people? I continue to ask myself, concerned I’ll come down with a serious case of FOMO come my departure date.
As it so happens, during some time just sitting on the daybed, not writing my own quotable masterpiece, but glancing up at the lake every now and again while reading Paul Theroux, I came upon some confirmation that perhaps all this not-doingness does classify.
“It is sometimes the way in travel, when travel becomes its opposite: you roll and roll and then dawdle to a halt in the middle of nowhere. Rather than making a conscious decision, you simply stop rolling.” (Ghost Train to the Eastern Star)
“Travel is at its most rewarding when it ceases to be about your reaching a destination and becomes indistinguishable from living your life.” (Ghost Train to the Eastern Star)
OK, so I’m not not-traveling. And I suppose I’m not not-writing either.
Thanks, Paul Theroux. I feel slightly better now.
So I didn’t hop on a train to Luzern or take the old paddle funicular up a Swiss mountain to the Alps, but I did walk through the Old Town, take a ferry around Lake Zurich, eat a ridiculously expensive piece of chicken at a hipster hotspot with some locals, and happen on a random festival on a hilltop where I mingled with Swiss Germans eating bratwurst and cheesy noodles topped with crispy onions while the sun set behind the Grossmünster church.
[Brief interlude No. 2, during which I took the No. 165 bus again for brunch with new friends at an overpriced restaurant called Quai61 overlooking the lake, followed by a giggle-infused paddle boat ride around said lake, followed by sips of the popular Gazosa flavored soda at what they call “Badi” here in Zurich, which is essentially a dock on the water where people drink and hang and, in the summer, swim. Then, I took a 90-minute vinyasa class at a lovely, breezy and bright studio, followed by a cervelat sausage and mustard-y potato salad that I ate while standing up at a bar table outside before returning back to the house by bus where I showered and watched a leaked episode of Game of Thrones].
Which brings me to where I sit again at my “writing table,” birds chirping, sun shining. Still no whiff of chocolate. It’s a few hours after sunrise [ed. note: Monday], during which I saw the sherbert-y skies glisten on the lake, took a photo, and promptly went back to bed for an hour.
I contemplated taking advantage of the early morning quiet before Pete and his girlfriend Katie arrived home and my solitary “writing retreat” comes to an end, but then I knew it’d return to quiet at some point, here in my room facing the lake.
The quietness just shifts in waves; has different decibels. Sometimes there’s rain drops, like on Saturday. Sometimes there’s a hoo-ing pigeon. Sometimes birds chirping and bells ringing. Sometimes there’s footsteps from neighbors down below. Sometimes there’s a car pulling up outside. All different sounds of quiet. So that’s what sitting still is all about, huh? Observing. Taking notice.
[Brief interlude No. 3, during which I went for a massive walk/hike into the hills with Pete putting me at 15,000 steps before noon; cooked an asparagus frittata for Pete and Katie, which we ate on the terrace; went into town with Pete to watch Sechselauten, Zurich’s annual parade of spring where at 6p.m. on the dot they burn something called a Böögg in order to welcome in spring and summer; returned home to eat a bowl of homemade pasta bolognese before watching Game of Thrones again in HD with Pete and Katie who understandably had trouble keeping their eyes open, courtesy of our good friend Jetlag.]
The house is quiet again this morning [ed. note: Tuesday]. You know it by now: birds chirping, church bells-quiet. Pete and Katie left for work so I’ve got another few hours left to do what I came to do: write. So it’ll only be this blog. It’s something, right?
I suppose the last few days have been another test of my ability to not run—despite my ardent desire to begin an exercise routine; to explore or create, even if it’s not the next award-winning New Yorker essay.
Of course, I still managed to do a lot (see brief interludes 1, 2, and 3). In fact, I probably did more than most on “vacation”—a type of travel I so rarely participate in and admittedly turn my nose up at. It’s not that I don’t enjoy sitting on a lounger, staring at a body of water, reading a book. I think it’s that sometimes I feel, with this new life I lead as a freelance journalist who focuses on travel, I don’t deserve it. That my life is seemingly one big vacation, so to take time “off” from it feels overly indulgent. All too often the lines between “work” and “play” blur, making it difficult to distinguish one from the other. Not a bad problem to have, to be sure, but since my reality often feels like a dream I can’t help but feel it’s only inevitable that I’ll one day have to wake up from it. In which case, I better get out there and take advantage, lest it—poof!—disappear before the next church bells ring.
But those expectations (probably self-induced) are too grand; that pressure (probably self-induced) is too restricting; and these limitless hours and lack of discipline (definitely self-induced) are overly confining.
Which is why, after five days of fighting the freedom to create or not create; to experience or not experience; to tour or not tour; I have decided that I do deserve to peacefully, and without worry, stop for awhile and just smell the damn chocolate.
As if on cue, yesterday I finally got a whiff. And man, was it incredible. I couldn’t inhale deep enough, and for the first time in a while, I didn’t want to do anything but breathe.