Trip, trap, trip, trap
Who goes over my bridge?
ONCE upon a time…
In a small village in the pines, lived a little girl and her grandmother.
They loved to spend their days together walking in the fields, picking wildberries, and doing puzzles by the fire. But most of all, the little girl loved when Granny would read her stories, for she loved tales of faraway lands & mischievous creatures.
Her favourite of all was the tale of the three goats. She loved the pictures of the waterfalls and the rolling green hills, but she especially loved the troll, with his wild hair and crazy eyes. She found him mysterious and wanted to learn more.
One day the little girl asked Granny where the troll lived. But she could tell that Granny didn’t exactly know. “Well…see…he lives right under that bridge,” Granny said, pointing at the page. “Right there in the meadow.”
“I know that, Granny.” the little girl said. “But WHERE is the meadow? Where is the bridge?”
The fact that Granny didn’t seem to know surprised the little girl, but it gave her a valuable clue. The little girl knew that wherever this troll lived, it wasn’t anywhere near their little village. Otherwise, Granny would surely know where to find him. No, this troll lived somewhere far, far away, of that the little girl was certain.
“I’m going to go see that troll, Granny.” she decided, right then and there. “I’ll find him and go visit him.”
This made Granny chuckle. “Oh, you’re going to go a lot of places,” she told her grand-daughter. “Like a bird, you’ll fly into the sky, and see many things. You’re going to be someone in this world. Someone who goes places.”
And as Granny continued with the story of the three goats, with each page the little girl marveled at the hills and the waterfalls. But it was Granny’s words that took their place firmly in her mind.
You’re going to be someone in this world. Someone who goes places.
To the little girl, Granny’s words were more than a hope or a passing thought. To her, Granny’s words were a promise.
And from that day on, that promise grew into something even greater. A dream…
“When I’m gone, scatter me over Switzerland…” she told me from the time I was little, before I even knew what or where she was talking about.
“I’ll bring you to Switzerland, Nana!” I would tell her. “We’re going to Switzerland!” And she would nod her head and laugh.
It wasn’t something she thought would actually happen. For her, Switzerland wasn’t a goal or a travel destination, or even a realistic request. Switzerland was a fairytale, the land of the jeweled hills, a place so far away and magical that it seemed impossible to ever reach. Like heaven itself, it was a hope, an idea, a dream.
I knew that she would never see Switzerland during her lifetime. I knew the clock would run out for that. But I also knew that when I said that I’d bring her there, I meant it. I knew that one day we would stand in those jeweled hills together.
I knew this because long ago, without even knowing it, she made me a promise. And so I made a promise to her.
My first glimpse of Switzerland is through the clouds, like a bird soaring in from above. Even from the haze of the air, I can see the jeweled hills. They’re even more beautiful than I imagined.
As the wheels touch down on the runway, I look down at my backpack, where her ashes are nestled in a tiny wooden chest. I look back out the window, trying to wrap my mind around it. That after all this time, we’re finally here.
“Nana, look!” I whisper to her, to the tiny wooden chest. “Nana, we made it! We’re in Switzerland!”
As the plane arrives at the gate and everyone jostles to gather their luggage, I stay in my seat, letting them all file out. I keep my head to the window the entire time, so none of them can see. I don’t want them to see the tears rolling from my eyes.
Several years ago, after she left, I had a dream in the night. I was in a city that I had never been to before. I didn’t know how or why I got there, but I was in a very posh hotel room – the kind I could never afford in real life.
The room was done in shades of blue, but what I remember most was the view out the window. The room looked out onto an array of beautiful, old buildings, and next to the buildings was a sparkling lake.
When I arrive in Zürich the hotel clerk tells me the room isn’t ready yet, but to come back in a few hours. She says they’ll give me the first room available, and that my luggage will be waiting in the room for me.
I walk out onto the streets of Zürich, and the first thing that greets me is the city’s beautiful lake.
All along the lake, people are walking, cycling, eating ice cream, playing music. I walk north, onto the cobblestone streets of old town, the bridges and clocktowers all around me. I hear church bells ringing in the distance. Zürich is right out of a fairytale.
I walk from one side of town to the other, losing myself in the sights of the city. Eventually I come to a small hotel on top of a hill. Inside I find a cafe lined with towers of books. Floor to ceiling mountains of books, and somehow, I’m the only one here. The place is all mine.
A few minutes later, an employee comes over and introduces himself. He offers to take my picture and tells me I can even climb the book ladder, which I enthusiastically do. His warmth & graciousness shines through as he tells me all about the hotel and about Switzerland. We become fast friends.
He asks what has brought me to Zürich, and I tell him about my grandmother. I spend the afternoon eating & drinking among the books, and I flash back and see her reading to me. The awe of where I am starts to hit me, and just like on the plane, I have to turn away, so that nobody sees.
Later, back at my own hotel, the desk clerk hands me my keys and I head up to my room. I see my luggage waiting there when I first step in, but the rest of what I see doesn’t make any sense. I’ve been in this room before.
Except that I haven’t been in this room before. I’ve never been to Switzerland, much less to Zürich, much less to this hotel that I could never normally afford.
So I stand there, trying to remember, trying to make sense of this feeling I can’t make any sense of. The window-shade is open across the room, and I see a sand-colour building facing me. But as I cross the room and get closer, the view to my left opens up wider, and that’s when I see it.
The lake. I’m looking at the lake that I saw in my dream.
Bern is like walking through the scenes of a storybook. Hilly and steep, with it’s aqua river and red-roofed houses, every sight is magical. As I stop and look out over the bridge, I can’t help but talk to her. “Nana!” I call out, over the breeze of the river. “Nana, look where we are!”
I walk from the bridge down a winding hill that takes me through some quiet residential streets. But like every fairytale, a dark turn always lurks.
Walking along, the air starts to change and I begin to feel a heavy weight descending on me. It’s the weight of an unwelcome, all-too-familiar visitor. On the idyllic streets of Bern, Grief catches up with me.
The wonder and awe of where I am give way to an intense heaviness. Every sight that I see, every experience, reminds me of all that she wanted for me. But I also think about what she wanted for herself.
And I know that she wanted more than life allowed her to be. I know that she wanted to be right here, doing what I’m doing, seeing what I’m seeing. Living how I’m living.
And I’ll never know how or why she dreamed of this beautiful land in the first place. But standing here in the middle of Bern, I see the way that her dream and my own have blurred together, and it overwhelms me. Grief grips me mercilessly and once again, I have to keep my head down, firmly turned away from the strangers walking past.
The intensity of emotion takes away my ability to focus, so I abandon any further sightseeing plans and just start walking. No longer knowing or caring where I’m heading, I head in any direction where I see minimal crowds. Up ahead I spot a castle-like building in the distance, and as I get closer, I see that it’s a museum.
The museum is closed; there aren’t many people around, and this suits me well. I take a turn toward the side of the building, following a dirt path into a thick patch of shady trees. What I find next will be one of my favourite finds of all my travels.
It’s nothing grand, at least not in the traditional sense. It’s a small tower, covered in moss & vines. Its wooden steps lead up to a collection of bells, some big, some small. It’s one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen.
It’s simple, child-like even. But all of a sudden, I’ve been transported to my own stage, in my own fairytale. This little bell-tower brings forth an unfiltered happiness in me that I am not expecting.
As I kneel underneath to ring the largest bell, my tears have now given way to a playful happiness. Each time I ring the bell, I ring it louder and louder. I laugh like I’m a little girl again.
I end up spending over an hour at the secret bell-tower. I don’t want to leave, but when it finally comes time, I leave smiling. I leave being reminded that sometimes, even in fairytales, it’s the littlest things that often come out of nowhere, and make everything turn around.
The Circus is Here
Back in Zürich, I notice a massive lit-up tent on the street, framed in blinking lights. There’s no mistaking those red & white stripes. The circus is here.
The fact that it’s all in German doesn’t stop me. In fact, it makes it all the better, my limited comprehension of the language forcing me to take in the experience exclusively through sight & sound.
I have a grand time eating french fries under the glow of pink lights, laughing along at the emcee’s jokes – even though I have no idea what he’s saying. But when a group of young acrobats take the stage, catapulting themselves into the air and somersault-landing onto a surface no bigger than a shoebox – I start getting high anxiety. I can’t watch.
I sit there, and through squinted eyes I wonder what would drive anyone to do these things. How does anyone even do this? And why would anyone want to?
After the show, I meet up with my new friend from the book-café, who shows me around Old Zürich. I’m telling him about the circus & the acrobats, and how I don’t understand why they do these stunts.
“Well,” he says. “People will say the same about you.”
“Me?” I say, confused. “How so?”
“What makes you go all the places you go?” he asks me. “What makes you go off & explore like you do? What makes you come here to Switzerland? Most people won’t understand why or how you do it.”
“We all have different dreams in us,” he continues. “Often the dreams don’t make sense to anyone else. But they make perfect sense to us.”
And what he’s saying is so simple, but so true. Whatever mysterious force that drives those acrobats up in the air is the same force that has me walking through Zürich on a Thursday night, talking with him. I realize I’m living the answer to my own question.
What gives someone a dream? And how far will one go for it?
I should know better than anyone, that dreams aren’t easily explained. But I also know that when one firmly takes hold, you’ll go any distance. You’ll go as far as it takes.
I end up in St. Gallen completely by mistake.
It’s Friday, and I’ve gotten a late start. By the time I get to the train station, it’s already mid-afternoon, and I’ve missed the train to Interlaken.
But I’m already here at the station, and I’ve still got most of the day. I see on the board that there’s a train to St. Gallen leaving in ten minutes. So, St Gallen it is.
When I arrive, I head straight to the town’s famed abbey library. But by the time I get there, the clerk tells me there’s only 25 minutes until closing time. They don’t normally let anyone in this late, but she decides to make an exception for me. She even gives me the student price as a consolation.
Outside the library entrance are slippers you have to wear over your shoes, to protect both the library’s floor and its silence. As I put on my slippers and glide through the doorway, I am once again in a wonderland of books, a treasure trove of stories.
Grief doesn’t descend this time, but something else does. Every day, it’s like her voice is getting louder & louder, her presence getting more & more undeniable.
When my 25 minutes are up, I wander out onto the streets of St. Gallen and discover that a big street fair is going on tonight. Everywhere I look there are vendors hawking their delicacies, performers preparing their acts, and musicians playing their tunes.
I buy a phyllo-dough pastry and stop to watch a puppet show on a cobblestone alley. Later, wandering thru the streets; I come upon a heavily-tattooed contortionist with a thick Australian accent who’s drawn a sizable crowd. He’s juggling three running chainsaws and slithering his body through a minuscule hoola-hoop, all while standing on stilts.
There’s a screaming toddler in the crowd, which isn’t unusual, but this particular screamer just won’t quit. Finally the Australian shouts out from his stilts, “Hey! What’s wrong, buddy?!”
“He’s lost his balloon,” the screaming toddler’s father explains from the crowd.
So the Australian stops his act and gets off his stilts. It just so happens that right behind him – is a huge pink balloon. Tied to a column, the balloon is clearly there as part of the festival’s marketing, but the Australian sees no reason why it can’t be given to the screaming toddler. He begins to untie it, and the crowd cheers.
Except he can’t get the damn thing untied, because, well…it’s Switzerland. Everything, including balloon tying, is done to the highest precision & accuracy.
Finally a guy in the crowd runs up to help, because he has on him – what else – a Swiss Army knife. Before long, the pink balloon is heroically cut, presented to the screaming toddler, and the crowd erupts in applause.
But a mere minute later, just as the Australian has climbed back on his stilts, a visibly unhappy festival employee marches thru the crowd, heading right toward the toddler’s father. She’s shaking her head, pointing, scolding the poor guy for theft of the festival’s pink balloon.
So the Australian has to stop and get off his stilts AGAIN, to intervene and explain that it was in fact HE who instigated the stealing of the balloon, not the bewildered father. The crowd goes wild with laughter and applause, as even the Swiss sometimes crave a little spontaneity & vigilantism. Cheering with support, the crowd has spoken, and the frowning employee eventually has no choice but to retreat.
The Australian gets back on his stilts a third time, finally getting to finish his death-defying act. He takes a bow and thanks the crowd, as everyone races to put their Swiss francs into his basket.
On the train ride home, just like with the acrobats, I think about what dreams led the Australian to do what he does. But I also can’t help but think, that of all the dangerous tricks he displayed before us tonight, it was a pink balloon that everyone would be going home talking about.
Another simple thing appearing out of nowhere, and another simple thing stealing the show.
Nestled high up in the Alps, it takes me four train rides to reach her final home, the village of Lauterbrunnen.
The magnificence of the Swiss Alps goes beyond anything I’ll ever be able to convey in words or in pictures. My first thought when I arrive is that I’ve somehow transcended space and time, that I’ve somehow crossed a bridge and gone beyond Earth itself. I’ve never seen anything this beautiful and peaceful.
I have no exact plan when I arrive, no specified location of where to bring her, so I just take the village’s main path and keep walking. I walk past the small village hotels, cafes, and souvenir stands, and then into a magic I have never experienced.
The farther I walk, the more the other tourists begin to fall away, one by one. The snow-capped mountains beckon in front of me, and I walk toward them until finally it’s just me and her and Switzerland.
And there she is, in every sight I see. There she is, in the endless towering waterfalls, one after the other, falling over the jeweled hills. There she is, in the fields covered with dandelions, in the tabby cat that crosses my path. There she is, in the chalet cottages dotting the mountain, in the group of goats grazing in the grass. Everywhere I look, there she is.
And now I see that she’s been here all along, from the beginning. She was in the towers of books at the cafe, in the hotel room over-looking the lake. I see her at the puppet show on the cobblestone street, in the missed train, at the secret bell tower. I see her everywhere.
And looking up at one of the waterfalls, I start to see that it wasn’t really me who brought her here. It was her who brought me.
I see that she was already here somehow, and that she wanted me to see all that I’ve seen, to do all that I’ve done. She said that I would be someone who would go places, and then she brought me to the most beautiful place she could dream of.
And so under the waterfall, surrounded by dandelions in the rolling jeweled hills, I live out my promise to her, just as she lived out her promise to me. The tears fall, but they’re tears of joy and gratitude, magic and love. Feeling her presence and happiness, I hold my hand out in the breeze, and I see her become part of Switzerland.
On the long walk back thru the Swiss countryside, I listen to her favourite, the Everly Brothers. “Whenever I want you, all I have to do is dream,” the two brothers sing. “Dream, dream, dream….”
I flash back to something else that my new friend said that night, about dreams. “Sometimes, one has a dream that doesn’t seem to make any sense,” he told me. “And sometimes, the dream isn’t in their heart just for them; it’s there for someone else, too.”
As I walk back to Earth, under the backdrop of the hills, I still don’t know how it all happened. Like all dreams, I’ll never know exactly why or how she did it. But there’s one thing I do know, and it’s the only thing I need to know.
I know that she’s here now, in Switzerland. And that she’s smiling. And I also know, thanks to her – that dreams are real, and that they can come true.
is never the end…
The morning I leave Switzerland, it’s raining. “Zürich is crying for you,” the waiter at the hotel says to me, knowing it’s my last day here. But rain or not, I bundle up and head out onto the soggy streets. There’s one more thing I need to do.
I head north toward the clocktowers, taking in the fairytale city one last time. Off to my side, I see a short flight of stairs that takes me to a small landing right on the edge of the lake. No barrier or safety gate, it’s like it’s been put there just for me, for exactly what I need to do.
With me is the tiny wooden chest, where I saved just a handful of her ashes from Lauterbrunnen. I stand there for a few minutes, looking out at this faraway land. I can hear the church bells ringing in the distance, as I watch a group of ducks glide peacefully in the water. I stand there, in awe of where she brought me, in awe of all that she allowed me to see.
The rain mixes with my tears, but this time I don’t try to hide. It doesn’t matter now if anyone sees me, for I don’t see them. All I see now is the lake, and a little girl with her grandmother.
All I see is me and her walking in the fields, picking berries, doing puzzles. All I see is the troll and the goats and the rolling green hills. All I see is the way that my dream and hers somehow came together to bring us both to this beautiful place. And most of all, I see how much she loved me, and how much I’ll always love her.
“Scatter me over Switzerland…” she said, when it was only just a dream.
And now I release her one last time into the wind, watching as she disappears and becomes forever part of the lake. Our lake, the very lake that she showed me once, in a dream.
I love you Nana
thank you from the bottom of my heart, for showing me what’s possible, and to never let go of a dream