We write to you this Valentine’s Day from a bench on the shore of Lac
du Neuchatel, enjoying the atypically warm February Switzerland is experiencing. Valentine’s Day is especially special for us because we met on a 27 hour Valentines Day four years ago as we braved a snowstorm and departed on our inaugural trip to the Grand Canyon! It’s funny to think that we thought our ten days in the GC would be our big adventure… but adventure (together) is what we’ve been doing ever since!
It has now been two weeks without our bikes, and we often think of them sitting in a garage in Genoa. We left them with a very generous Couch Surfing host named Sylvia, and we look forward to reconnecting with her, Temagami and Nootka at the end of the month. Although it could never compare to cycle touring, we are enjoying being backpackers! After leaving Genoa, we had a train change in Milan and decided to spend a wild Saturday night there (please picture the hilarity of us in our casual outfits wandering the posh streets of this fashion capital). There was certainly a different feel between these two northern Italian cities in comparison to the southern ones we were becoming used to. Genoa and Milan felt quiet more organized, quiet and calm, and we were really impressed by the conditions of the buildings in the historical centres. In fact, Genoa has the largest historical centre in Europe!
The progression from chaos continued as we boarded an uber modern Swiss train bound for the capital, Bern. Bern was a very quaint medieval city with a fairy-tale feel… although the prices quickly bring you back to reality! Even though the city maintains its historical roots, things like its efficient public transport, cleanliness and array of museums made it very modern. Being in our first Swiss city felt a bit like going back home. We felt rather Canadian in the crisper air and warm shops and cafes, and were thankful for the friendly (taller!) people around us.
In Bern we stayed with our first Warm Showers host. Warm Showers is an online hospitality site, like Couch Surfing, but exclusive to cycle tourists (thus rather ironic that we did not have our bicycles). We stayed with Lukas and Edith and their two young boys Lars and Nikolas. They had also completed a year long cycle tour, as well as many other short ones, which started on the West Coast of Canada so it was really nice to share stories about that part of the world. In fact, they had been to Telegraph Cove! Telegraph Cove is a small community (with a year-round population of 4!) where Alec was stationed with the Coast Guard in 2009 and where we returned with the Outdoor Club last spring for a week of sea kayaking. It’s a small world after all! Lukas and Edith were so generous, sharing with us their home, bikes, food and stories. We were also treated to a traditional Swiss meal of Raclette… vegetables covered in melted cheese, yum yum. We ate lots (lots!), as our hunger seemed to increase the more we thought about the meagre meals we would be eating at our meditation course.
After our time in Bern we took a train to Mont Soleil, in the French part
of Switzerland, for our course. We spent the ten days in an old traditional Swiss building in the mountains, with a commanding view. We learned the meditation technique of Vipassana, which is a practice brought from Burma/India but is strictly non-sectarian and not affiliated with any religion. On the technical level, Vipassana is a form of meditation that aims to develop mastery over the mind through concentration on respiration and bodily sensations. One of its main aims is to develop a balanced mind by becoming aware of, and equanimous with, how we mentally react to certain situations. Consequently, this practice helps one learn how to stop allowing external realities to influence inner happiness. Ultimately, the meditation is described as an “art of living” so that people can grow to be peaceful and loving with themselves and thus in a better position to have genuine compassion for others. Our experience was very special and we look forward to incorporating meditation into our day-to-day life. Certainly the ten days in Mont Soleil are a difficult thing to put into words, but we would love to talk more with anyone about our experience! Although the 10 days were challenging, we definitely think it has tremendous benefit. You can check out more at http://www.dhamma.org, and just to let our Ontario friends know, there is a centre in Barrie!
One of the especially challenging, although certainly necessary, aspects of the course was that of “Noble Silence”. For nine out of the ten days there was no communication with the other 40 students: no talking, eye contact, gestures, touching etc. We also could not read or write. This created an environment where you could deeply explore your own mind, and although a lot of meaningful discoveries occurred we really enjoyed getting to talk again! It was great meeting the other people from the course, of all ages and walks of life. We hope to stay in communication with some of them.
Our transition back into reality after leaving Mont Soleil was a bit overwhelming… after such silence and focused concentration we found the hustle-and-bustle of “normal life” a sensory overload! Even though we were in tranquil Switzerland we sort of felt like we were in an Indian marketplace. This overwhelming feeling did not last long, but we certainly have noticed that after ten days of concentrating on sensation, many of our senses feel amplified: things taste stronger, smell stronger, and we are more aware of the sounds around us. Pretty cool.
And this weekend was spent enjoying the quaint town of Neuchatel. Caitlin’s father (as well as some other friends) attended a Canadian junior college in Neuchatel when he was 18. This is a place Caitlin has always had a positive image of, but the town itself was better than she imagined. The historical centre was, like Bern, a medieval, well-kept and fairy-tale like spot. One especially attractive part of Neuchatel is their public waterfront; twenty years ago the town diverted the highway to go underneath the city and with the excavated earth they expanded the waterfront to create a beautiful park along the lake.
In Neuchatel we were again lucky enough to stay with Warm Showers hosts, Johanna, Diego and their daughter Annette (who turned 11 today!). This was again a very positive and comfortable experience with these kind people. Their house felt like a treefort and was full of colour and music. We shared some nice meals together (and we had fun making them Canadian style pancakes with Quebec maple syrup we found) and enjoyed walking the waterfront with them on Sunday afternoon. As we already mentioned, the weather right now is properly balmy, so it felt like the whole population of 30,000 was outside yesterday! Being locals, Johanna and Diego also knew that the students from the Canadian college had an infamous reputation for hanging out at a certain pub downtown, so on Saturday night we went for a beer ourselves and met a group of Canadians who were having an amazing year themselves. In a way, it was like seeing Caitlin’s dad and his buddies “studying hard”!
After our time in Neuchatel, we’ve realized how thankful we are for Warm Showers as it really connects us to like-minded folk. As we discussed with Johanna and Diego, it seems like cycle tourists are cut from a similar cloth as lots are liberal-minded, educated and curious about the world, and would prefer to pass on owning a car or TV and instead enjoy good books, food and wine. Hopefully our experiences continue to be good ones, as we have Warm Shower hosts set up in both Lausanne and Geneva.
With all this talk of meditating and touring, we thought we would leave you with some “punya” (or wisdom) that we’ve developed on the road over the past four months. We will call it our meditations on cycle touring as metaphors for life.
– Rarely are hills as steep as they appear
– When the wind is at your back do not spit over your shoulder
– Keep one eye on the rear view mirror, the other ahead of you, and your mind on the present
– If possible, go with the flow
– When pedaling becomes difficult, change gears
– Stop often
– Beware of “shortcuts” they are often steep and treacherous
– Seldom does the road stay flat
Alec and Caitlin