Drink, Grovel, Fuck: Vers L’Eglise
30 hours of travel climaxed with a Swiss mountain bus barreling around jack-knifes, kissing the tips of jagged blind curves, and scraping by tractors and trucks with seeming negative clearance. The atmosphere of cheerful mortal danger was intensified by my fellow riders: an entire grade school class equipped with slide whistles — instruments of madness.
Before he managed to roll the vehicle into one of the many gobsmackingly picturesque alpine valleys, the driver booted me from the bus at a cluster of chalets known as the village of Vers L’Eglise. The sky was a fine cloudy blue and I could already feel the mescaliney effects of high altitude and thin air interacting pleasantly with my travel delirium. I was exhausted, but still excited to begin my residence in the Alps, where I intended to clear my body of pollutants, cure my psychic tuberculosis.
I approached a Swiss man hacking at an enormous wheel of cheese and inquired as to the whereabouts of the de Lidwe chalet, the seat of my hosts. The man clapped the Emmental dust off his hands, rolled a car-length alpine horn out from an alleyway, and sounded a mighty blast into the still-ascending mountains. This call was picked up and transmitted across the peaks by other hornblowers, and several minutes later the de Lidwe family arrived in a motor carriage. My friend, the painter Karl de Lidwe, greeted me warmly and introduced me to his parents, Mr. de Lidwe, a former diplomat, and Mrs. de Lidwe, a retired educational administrator.
We arrived at the chalet, situated atop a sloping pasture that dropped into a misty, tree-lined valley. Around the property the peaks of mountains stood sentinel. Cows drifted through the landscape, each fitted with a differently toned-bell, creating the illusion of a giant, dreamily mournful wind chime. The scene was set for relaxation and recuperation.
And then I entered the chalet. Its two stories of interior were an absolute ruin. Gaping holes in the floor made my welcome tour a perilous game of hopscotch. Planks missing from walls, stairwells demolished, everywhere an inch-thick layer of sawdust. The door knobs were little more than ancient nails posing as handles. The toilet was a crude chute leading to a nearby stream; the shower a decrepit bucket for fetching cold water from said stream. I was shown to my quarters on the top floor, a moldy niche beneath harshly slanted rafters reserved for the low-status body-hygiene servants of yore.
Karl’s sporadic email communication had prepared me for none of this. I checked my phone, of a mind to relocate to a less-rustic rustic inn, and saw that there was no service; a scan of available networks revealed no wireless signals. At first I was more than happy to avoid the mediasphere for a week and the unfurling disaster of American governance, but I then realized this left me with no discreet exit strategy.
And so I was cut-off, marooned in the Swiss Alps.
I rejoined the de Lidwes on the lower floor of the chalet and was promptly handed a top-shelf cocktail. Mr. de Lidwe, a 6’5” Wilford Brimley, ushered me out to the deck, which hung off the main edifice by a few tendrils of baling wire. So situated, he offered me a cigar, and explained that the family was on a working vacation to fix up the house, but they were short on unskilled manpower. That’s where I came in. I would be earning my keep and the duration of my stay would be determined by the speed and quality of the remodel of the chalet. He readily confirmed that I would never be able to find my way back to civilization on my own, and mentioned that mountain drivers made sport of running pedestrians off the road. Throughout the detailing of my conscription he remained persuasive and fatherly, clearly a top-flight diplomat, the kind of guy who could shit in your mouth and tell you it was Turkish delight. (He later bragged about how he had talked four cargo ships of illegal immigrants into returning to China rather than risk crossing the Sonoran desert.) I was sick of myself and of my self-directed meander through Europe; having all agency taken away and replaced with useful work bore a certain appeal, and I could limber up my flabby body to boot. I shot an inquisitive/beseeching look at Karl, who shrugged and continued chiseling out a wooden nail from a 2×4. Mr. de Lidwe pointed out the antique musket — functional and loaded — that hung above the front door.
And so began my days of Swiss bondage.
I would wake in the morning to a migration of cowbells past my tiny window and join the de Lidwes on the bottom floor. While Karl painstakingly chipped stairsteps out of antediluvian chunks of wood, Mr. de Lidwe tore up floors and walls with a brandy in one hand and a claw hammer in the other. I was assigned menial low-skill tasks: sanding planks, arranging boards by height, breaking rocks, acting as a human stepstool. I worked outdoors much of the time, in the streams of cloud that rolled off the mountain tops, damp inside and out from the rain drops that materialized on my skin, in my lungs.
I developed a bad bronchitis and a squeaking bone ache. Lichen grew beneath my fingernails.
Work was not setting me free, and the dull and repetitive nature of my tasks gave me too much time to reflect on moral failures both calcified and raw.
I began to resent my situation.
After the sun set, when little useful work could be accomplished, we retired to the dining room, where the fruits of Mrs. de Lidwe’s efforts awaited. Every meal involved melting cheese at different temperatures and then applying the liquid to bread, potatoes, and other unmelted cheeses. Despite many hours of daily labor, I gained a pound a day in cheese weight. The de Lidwes were the most sophisticated family I’d ever dined with; they rattled off pithy quotes from Shakespeare, Moliere, Emerson, de Tocqueville with ease. They’d lived all over the world and knew everything about everywhere. At the same time, a strange ultraconservative political streak wove in and out of the normally egalitarian conversation in a confusing fashion. A discussion of Rwandan art would hiccup into blaming Africa for not redrawing its own borders into politically tenable arrangements. Comments about the crippling nature of income inequality in the United States clanged into tirades about the 12 million illegal immigrants undermining wages. My indentured status forbade me from speaking at table, so I was luckily unable to participate.
After I finished the dishes I would join the family in the sooty parlor and suddenly become a full citizen for the space of the evening, as discordant a juxtaposition as the conflicting political schema of the de Lidwes. We drank cocktails, listened to classical music, smoked cigars, argued about the difficulties and merits of working as artists in a grotesquely mediatized and capitalized era. We’d lure a cow to the property line and take turns aiming body-hot milk right into each other’s mouths, mischievously painting eyes and nostrils. Once sufficiently tight, everyone gathered around a rhinoceros-ivory backgammon set for high-tension duels, with hundreds of thousands of francs worth of conflict diamonds on the line between father and son (I was allowed to play for my freedom but lost every time, extending my servitude for years). The nights usually ended with Mr. de Lidwe overturning the table and storming off to bed while Karl smiled to himself and continued his non-stop whittling. I began to suspect that Karl was addicted to wood.
While being around people following a month of solitude was doing me good, a week of indentured servitude was chafing and the weather was crisping toward alpine winter; soon we’d be snowed in until April. One night after the de Lidwes had gone to bed I snuck outside with the intention of climbing to the closest neighboring chalet and pleading for transportation to the train station. But the night was pitch-black on the outside, wrapped around a creamy center of cloud that made it impossible to see five feet in front of my face. All seemed hopeless, but then I heard a stir in the doghouse I had constructed from Karl’s discarded strips of wood. A Saint Bernard had taken shelter for the night, and what was that around it’s neck? A wifi hotspot! I whipped out my phone and connected to the network only to find that it would cost me 10 francs for an hour of internet. That was ridiculous, so instead I scribbled an S.O.S. on the back of a receipt and stuffed it under the dog’s collar. The next night a detachment of Swiss Guard arrived on mud-skis and carried me down the mountain as the de Lidwes dreamt cultured dreams of Euro-supremacy.
At least I think that’s what happened. That high elevation does weird shit to your head.