Lucerne is a dark moss-encrusted well.
A deep sea-green reservoir of time.
In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, as Clarissa makes her way through London she hears Big Ben strike ~ “leaden circles dissolving into the air”. In Lucerne, I feel as though one of these ripples touched shore. It is at the heart of why I am in this country.
Twenty-two years ago my parents travelled to Switzerland as part of “le grande tour”. In a souvenir shop, one that sold mostly fridge magnets and cuckoo clocks, they met a certain Nino Van der Sluys. They struck up a conversation, exchanged addresses, and kept in touch for the next two decades until Nino’s death in 2006. Although I shan’t go into detail about the project now, I am here in 2011 to record what remains ~ to see his home, the shop in the old part of the city, to meet Enesa, his wife.
Considering little has changed in Lucerne over the last few centuries, it’s safe to say that the streets I stepped into from the train station probably looked the same to my parents ~ when they were younger, stronger, excited, just as I was, about being in a new place. I wish, for a moment, the years would collapse and I could catch a glimpse of them as they walk together by the lake, follow as they cross Chapel Bridge.
Lucerne is smaller than Zurich but more popular a holiday destination. Perhaps its size makes it easier to bump into tourists in town, which is unfortunate because Lake Lucerne is much prettier, and the mountain scenery around it far more rugged and dramatic. Although watches are a general Swiss specialty, in Lucerne “time” seems to dominate in ways both physical and intangible. Everywhere there are constant reminders ~ the garishly touristy watch shops Bucherer and Gubelin, the many medieval clock towers, and the river that runs through the city.
The couch-surfing couple I stayed with lived in a flat close to a clock tower that struck every quarter of an hour, and from my mattress I could watch the Reuss River flow past, rushing by in foamy blue-green madness. Many poems use rivers as a metaphor for time – possibly the most well-known being Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” – but my favourite lines are from “Mirabeau Bridge” by the French writer Guillaume Apollinaire ~
“Under Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine
and all our loves…
The night is a clock chiming
The days go by, not I”
In Lucerne, I am haunted by nostalgia that is not mine, by memories I did not create. At all times, I feel as though I am walking in my parents’ footsteps. In many ways, it is so.
Not that there aren’t distractions ~ the walk around the lake, down a path flanked by chestnut trees is particularly lovely, as is the small but exquisite collection of artworks at Rosengart Museum (sketches and paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Seurat, Renoir, Chagall, Modigliani and Klee among others).
Yet as it happens, my most cherished sight was the Lion Monument ~ forever caught between permanence and ephemerality.
It was carved in 1820-1821 to commemorate the Swiss Guards massacred during the French Revolution, and has been called by Mark Twain as “the most mournful and most moving piece of stone in the world.”
I think it wouldn’t have been as melancholic if the lion were dead.
The tragedy lies in the fact that he is perpetually dying.
As we stand there, trigger-happy with our cameras, tossing away silver-coin wishes into a shallow pool, it is something we can all relate to, no matter where we’re from or how differently we travel.
While facing the lion, the years collapse and cease to matter.
Image by Turner © Tate Britain