Travel Blog 13: The McRib of Blogs
“Are you a rebel?”
My host Pascal, the genuine-natured Swiss man living along the east bank of Lake Zurich, brought that query down on my head as we sat on his terrace for dinner. He had spent hours cooking for just the two of us, starting with a salad and then moving on to chicken and a tomato pan sauce, along with cheese potatoes and other vegetables covered in garlic. The man had pulled out all the stops for me, the bedraggled, hairy American with an unshaved face smelling of sweat and train, despite my efforts to wash it off. So in return, the best I could probably offer him is good conversation.
But the question catches me off guard. Perhaps it’s the way it was phrased, since my host speaks English very well, but any writer knows there’s always the correct word that is just out of reach. Perhaps because in my mind, I have a different context for what a “rebel” is. My mind conjures up images of those Civil War “rebs” in grey. I consider the black and white images of French partisans during the Nazi occupation. How about the Haitian revolutionaries, those who managed to defeat two of the world’s great colonialist empires, or even Skywalker and crew fighting the evil Galactic hegemony.
And then there’s me. I’m not even much of a punk in the classic sense. My clothing sense is drab, my hair is tame, at least when I decide to shave it. I don’t have any real desire to stand out, at least not in person.
So what could he be asking? Do I go against the grain? Do I support certain causes? Is he asking if I stand up against injustice?
Or am I willing to go up against powers-that-be to effect positive change? If I said yes, then it would only be in a kind of existential way. I am a reporter at heart. I will write about these small acts of rebellion in the form of protests. I will try to point out when injustice has been done, and I can amplify voices of those who share their views with reason and honesty, but I have never really stood arm in arm with anybody on the picket line, not in my adult life.
I told him I am, but only in a sense. This trip, in and of itself, is a small, though incredibly insignificant act of rebellion against the rejection I was feeling in both my attempts at a professional and personal life. My “fuck it” personality begs for the occasional rash decision, so I may also be a rebel against sense itself.
I asked him if he was a rebel. He told me yes, he feels he is. In his youth, the Swiss government required mandatory military service for every man around 20 years of age. There are several months of boot camp before such service begins. My host says he told his superiors he could not continue with it, due to him rejecting the military lifestyle and also what it represented. It meant he would spend six months in jail.
Though the Swiss government changed the law in 1996 to allow for volunteer work in the medical field instead of the military, in the ‘80s, the young Pascal was still expected to do his duty. It was similar to what I heard from young South Koreans when I went there in 2016, which also requires a mandatory service of all young men. They too could face jail time if they refused to serve.
So he was in jail for six months, where he says he was threatened with a beatdown of one of the jail’s gangs when he stood up to its leader. Stuck in a room with just him and that gang leader, that beatdown never came, the fist inches from his face, and instead they talked. What about? Life, ambitions, what they wanted from the world.
It’s my attitude that makes him think I am this “rebel.” I am, afterall, defying logic itself as I make my way through western Europe during a pandemic, often getting into strange and inane situations thanks to my “oh fuck it” attitude. I am a rebel but maybe only in an existential sense. I have been a reporter. I have had a duty to try and relay issues and events with accuracy. I have been near and touched on rebellious acts, but only on the periphery.
He treats me again the next night to salad and fondue, along with a bottle of delicious white wine that holds none of the sourness I usually find in the beverage. We again talk late into the night about art, books, and history.
On my last day in Switzerland, my host leads me to the peak of the Etzel, the mountain directly across Lake Zurich from his home. It’s really only a small mountain, especially compared to my recent summits of Pilatus and Rigi. Up and up, and I’m surprised my legs can still handle the gradient considering how much walking I had been doing in just that past week. The mist shrouds the tops of the trees, but we can still see down onto the plateaus below, and even the alps far beyond. He tells me about the history of the area, of the abbey that once controlled large swaths of land in this region, to the old Swiss fortifications along the mountain, which would have been the country’s first line of defense should the Germans have decided to invade during WWII. That fighting would have been a ferocious, uphill slog, where no vehicles could possibly cross save for the planes tucked deep into the mountains.
We went despite the weather reports saying it would rain. There was really no hesitation on either of our parts, and we sat down for lunch at a mountain restaurant even as the first trickles started to form. As we walked back to his small, dark Orange Toyota, it started to come down; just a little at first, and then in sheets.
We both ran downhill through the rain, my umbrella only truly keeping my head dry, and nothing else. Small pebbles of hail struck the ground around us, mixing in with the rain. My shoes sloshed with water, my shorts soaked through to my underwear. I laughed, and I saw Pascal was smiling. Down steps where the water was cascading in waterfalls down and down, and finally back to his vehicle we both hopped in.
“Thanks,” I told him. “That was great.” I meant it.
“Yeah it was,” he said.