The Valley of Light

Writing about travel, because it broadens the mind and deepens the story.

My first clue that I’ve returned to the Canton of Graubünden  (Grisons) is the friendliness. People are open and chatty. I’m visiting the Eastern part of the canton, the Surselva, literally “above the woods” in Rhomansch.

Valley view

Rhomansch? That’s the fourth language of Switzerland, left over from the Roman Empire. To further confuse you, the inhabitants of Surselva speak their own variation of the dialect. Luckily for me, they also speak Swiss-German, which I speak as well.

A generous friend is allowing me to use his vacation apartment, so I’m exploring the Val Lumnezia. This week in late May, the valley is living up to its name. The sky shimmers with sunshine. Unlike some other valleys, this long broad valley is relatively dry, and the mountains aren’t as high. It’s accessed through a bus that starts in the town of Ilanz, which is located by a green turbulent river that bolts its way through a canyon. Rafting is popular, but I’m not in Ilanz for rafting. I’m here to get supplies for me and my hiking buddy, as the next day is a holiday. Unfortunately, I’ve underestimated the Swiss holiday fervor. All the stores closed at five instead of six-thirty, which means I have nothing for tomorrow’s meals except walnut pesto and a bundle of pasta. Okaay.

Ilanz old house

On the way to the old part of Ilanz

I have a few tricks up my sleeve though. Find a nice restaurant, relax, order off the menu, and then beg for whatever is transportable. I head towards the old section of town and find the restaurant Obertor, which turns out to be as nice as I hoped. As I enjoy a glass of the local Pinot Noir, which comes from Maienfeld, I discuss my victual challenge with the apple-cheeked waitress. Would I like them to heat up half a kilogram of frozen bread to take with me? Sure. How about some cheeses? Ditto that. A sausage? Now I’m in heaven. They’ve saved my bacon.

It’s still a tight community in the Val Lumnezia. My bus driver introduces himself by his first name, and gives me hiking tips. (If this doesn’t seem abnormal, you don’t know the Swiss-Germans). A woman picks me and my friend up during a steep up-hill climb with luggage. The passenger on one of my bus rides carries seedlings in a big woven basket. On another bus ride, the driver pulls up by a restaurant to everyone’s puzzlement. A minute later, newspaper handoff accomplished, he drives away again, leaving behind a satisfied co-worker who now has something to read with his coffee.

At the end of the Val Lumnezia, where the high mountain plateau Greina begins, I visit the village of Vrin. An old man is cleaning his scythe in the communal fountain. Laundry decorate the wooden buildings, which look like they’re blackened from centuries of smoke. I head towards the one place to eat in the village, a bakery, where I’m greeted by a voluble woman who praises the nut cake her husband makes. After she serves me on the terrace, her husband comes up himself to make sure it was all to my taste. Their cheerfulness aside, it’s hard to make a living in these little villages. The income from the months when the tourists come must make up for the long winter months of darkness and few customers.

Bakery Vrin

Stoked on sugar, protein from the nuts, and caffeine, I head off to look at the Hotel Péz Terri. I want climb through Greina over the pass over into the adjoining canton in 2018, and am looking for a departure point. I like what I see in Vrin. The Péz Terri probably hasn’t changed in fifty years. No corporate slick brochures and spa amenities. The young man who seems to be running the entire hotel talks with me about the best times to do the two to three-day mountain pass hike. He probably inherited the place from relatives; he’s cheerful and helpful, and I bet he’s a good cook too.

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Everyone needs a nice place to stay—even bugs.

Insect refuge

Insect refuge seen on hike

About five minutes out of Vrin I see the hiking path to Lumbrein on my right. I gladly leave the road, though there aren’t many cars. The two-hour hike from Vrin to Lumbrein is a pleasant walk through woods and glades; not too strenuous. The meadows are filled with dandelions, buttercups, clary-sage, and some yarrow. I rest above Lumbrein before continuing, crossing a brook with a newly constructed wooden bridge. As the end of the valley recedes into the distance, trees grow sparser, giving way to huge areas for grazing. With nothing to block my view, I can see the deep rift of the river valleys opposite me, branching off the Lumnezia. The sky isn’t mottled by a single cloud; the sun beats down; one of the first true days of summer.

Next year I’ll be back to Vrin, and I’ll continue to the high mountain pass.

On my way back to my hometown, I decide to stop off in Graubünden’s capital, Chur, perhaps best known internationally as the home of H.R. Giger, who designed the monster and the spooky sets for Sigourney Weaver’s break-out movie in 1979, Alien. However, I’m looking for a more heart-warming experience, one that celebrates community and local character. Luckily, I happen to have arrived on a Saturday, when Chur’s local market is in full swing.

Chur Marketplace

Ochsenplatz and Market

As tempted as I am by all the bread, cheeses, fruits, and other delicacies around, I have more than an hour’s trip back to St. Gallen, and my own kitchen table. I start scouting for a restaurant, and with luck, stumble upon Emma’s, a communal enterprise located near the Ochsenplatz, which translates ox place. The Ochsenplatz, part of the market that winds through several pedestrian streets, abuts the old city wall and a guard tower. According to my doe-eyed waiter, the old city wall still persists inside the surrounding apartments as well, visible in some of the kitchen walls. Emma’s itself looks like an old cellar on the inside, repainted in soothing pastels. Outside there are tables nudging up against the cheese-seller, who has her market stall right next to me. One of the owners, a young woman in a retro skirt, sits on the steps of the restaurant and chats with a table full of friends while her mother brings out drinks. Every day Emma offers one salty snack, and one sweet. I enjoy homemade smoked salmon rolls enhanced with crunchy beets, along with a glass of a local white wine, a Lauber Riesling Sylvaner. While Emma’s has great wines, don’t expect any bottled water. Since privatization of water creates an increasing threat to the well-being of the world, Emma’s serves fresh clean water from the Ochsenplatz. The 4 francs paid for the local water is donated to a project to improve water quality in Asia. (They didn’t actually charge me for the water, but I paid anyway). Clearly, the people who run Emma have their hearts in the right place.

Snack at Emma's

Emma’s snack of the day

And I got a great cup of Fair Trade coffee.

My last discovery of a rare treasure in Chur:

washing machines

The laundromat

Because while the scene below, in the village of Vrin, is picturesque, it’s not convenient for backpackers or hikers.

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The outdoor laundromat, for those with extra time

 

 

Writers Groups

pingtung-1167311_1920Writing a novel is hard, tedious, lonely, and occasionally inspiring work. Day after day the sentences accrue, the pages grow longer. But who truly writes for themselves, now that Emily Dickinson has been dead those many years.

When will the pay-off come for those weeks of desolate doldrums, those hours spent shut up with a host of imaginary friends to the detriment of real people waiting for attention?

That is when having the support of a writer’s group makes a difference. Just having the chance to air a small slice of the novel reanimates it; the viewing through different eyes, the chance to connect with an audience, however small and skeptical, keeps the hope alive that one day your book will reach many, move some, anger some, make some see things a new way.

It’s like running a marathon and having someone with a bottle of fresh water along the way, having your neighbor down the street wave at you, having a child proffer you a bevy of balloon.

It doesn’t help you win the race, but it makes the going easier.

 

Adaptation

Consider this: You’re raised by a former New York artist and a Swiss actress, who then converts full-heartedly to Hinduism. Your older half-sisters live in Brooklyn with their Jewish mother. Your older Swiss cousin absconds to Thailand, your younger Swiss cousin moves to Greece. You have no siblings or relatives nearby to show you the ropes as your tiny family moves all across the globe.

Now it is 1975 and you’re a bewildered teenager in the U.S.A. You do not know who Sonny and Cher are. You’re forbidden to wear blue jeans. Your schoolmates laugh at you often, and not from your own instigation.

You become an informal social anthropologist. You develop a life-long fascination with parsing cultural signifiers, including clothing styles, media preferences, and body language. Just the body language of a region can yield many observations: do people merely purse their lips when they are displeased, or will you get a tongue-lashing if you step in it? How long should you hold eye contact? What’s merely flirting, and what constitutes a blatant come-on that will get you in hot water?

And yet, the more you observe, the less you crave a full-scale adaptation. Certainly, you concede, a quick nod to cultural norms is indicated. You will not bare your midriff in a church, you will not laugh like a braying donkey with your Swiss friends, you will not be reserved and chilly on your vacation in Ireland. But the more you #travel, the less you care about fitting in. You have never fit in, you will never fit in; you could never squeeze all your multicultural experiences under one hat.

Local community thrives on continuity and provides security, but it exacts a price. You cannot reinvent yourself, you must plod through the steps of being who you are, there are expectations and webs that wind themselves around you.

Remain free.

The world is full of people like you: born one place and living in another. That is your community. Those who adapt, and adapt again, but remain true to what’s inside.

Dedicated to Hilarie B.

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Stranger Things and #Eleven

I like the show Stranger Things. It’s a mash-up of eighties movies like E.T. and Poltergeist, but that’s not why I watch it. Eleven, a girl with psychokinetic powers, is a delight to watch.

My Peppa Mueller trilogy is already written, so Eleven is not an inspiration, but rather an affirmation: viewers and readers want vulnerable, yet strong, female heroes.

Eleven is ravenous, but polite.  The cool exterior, the laconic and precise voice, bely a terrifying power. There is something so controlled about her exterior, until all control is abandoned, and she unleashes her power. We enjoy watching someone so young and so fragile suddenly take control of a situation.

Like my character, Peppa Mueller, she has a father who can only relate to her as someone to aid his experiments, though in Eleven’s case, the man she calls Papa is no blood relation. Like Peppa, Eleven isn’t sure how to act like a girl. El traipses around in a borrowed pink dress, looking faintly ridiculous. Only her lack of self-consciousness saves her from humiliation.

That, and her superpowers.

 Peppa’s falcon totem superpowers are not nearly so cinematically impressive, but then I’m aiming more for Lisbeth Salander than Stephen King’s Carrie. With limited superpowers, Peppa has to rely on deductive reasoning and some cunning, as well as some good friends.

Even with those differences, in the universe of female superheroes, there are less than six degrees of separation between Peppa and El.

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Playlist for Altering Your Consciousness

As a novelist, you need to open your mind and alter your consciousness. That’s especially true if you write fantasy with a shimmer of spiritual reverence.  Putting on my music acts as a cue to my psyche that we’re going to journey into that internal dream-like space where ideas and impressions assemble themselves into stories.

I’ve come across some artists whose evocative and trippy music is very special to me. They’ve given me permission to share their songs with you. Like most artists, they do it for the love, not the money, but if you like a song, you might consider buying an album.

Artist                Album                  Song

01. Govinda      Sound Sutras      There’s no one there

02. Digitonal    Save Your Light for Darker Days

Nothing Left to Say

03. Ikarus             Touch the Sun      Touch the Sun

04. Robert Carty    Garunda Valley   Serotonin Ashram

05. Magic Sound Fabric  Freedom Star    Perfect Light

Nightmare on Myrtle Street

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The robot nation puts you in a barbed-wire pen. The snarling beast chews your arm to pieces. The masked man steals into your apartment, knife ready to slash your throat. And then the more plebian ones: you’re out in public, with no clothes on, or taking a final exam for a subject you’re unfamiliar with.

By now you know what I’m talking about. Not just altered consciousness. Nightmares. But when I lived on Myrtle Street as a young woman, I didn’t have just run of the mill nightmares. I had detailed vivid dreams, during which I even felt pain, or smelled strange smells. My lifestyle, hanging out with musicians and experimenting with various substances, fed the tendency of my nighttime psychic wanderings.

Once I became lucid in my dream-state, and realized I wouldn’t actually die, I enjoyed the challenge of finding ways to survive. I would wake to ponder the meaning of my latest sleep excursion. The nightmare about the poisonous hallucinogen, disguised as drink and served at a remote mountain inn while we waited for our meals, especially intrigued me. I got a glimpse of a sinister doctor lurking by the barrel which held the viscous dark liquid. The doctor and his associates were cannibals, who had waited for the full moon before unleashing their hellish concoction on the unsuspecting diners.

I experienced this dream as one of the poisoned subjects, a young woman on her own. I wondered at her predicament. How did she come to be in that isolated and dangerous situation? Why did she have to break a man’s neck? What was the meaning of the skull castle that she saw when she turned into a falcon and flew into the sky?

Once I started writing, I christened her Peppa Mueller, and her acerbic skeptical personality came into sharp focus. I took the journey with Peppa, and learned more about myself. I also discovered a hero in the story that wasn’t in my nightmare: Tenzin, a Bhutanese man of deep insights and compassion.

Now I’m ready to share the journey with my readers. The three books in the Falcon series have gone far beyond the original nightmare, evolving into a metaphysical exploration of the body/mind split.