Kris à Genève

A Canadian living in Switzerland

A week with the cousins

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In mid-March, Eileen and I hosted my cousins Jon and Joan for a week’s visit. Joan runs her own management consultancy and, prior to staying with us, she was working with clients in Amsterdam, and then Geneva. After Joan finished her work, Jon flew in to join her for a week-long European holiday.

Our first stop was to visit Jon’s brother PJ and his family in Zurich. PJ and his wife Sara have four boys under the age of nine, so their home life is a blur of noise and activity. Zurich is only 2.5 hours by train from Geneva, but this was only my third visit to their house, as PJ and Sara have so few opportunities to come of for air that planning ahead and receiving guests is a daunting task. It is therefore a welcome alignment of the planets when they have an opening in their schedule, when no one in the family is sick, when our visit coincides with foreign arrivals such as Joan and Jon, and so on.

We last saw PJ’s family at Eileen’s and my wedding, in Canada in 2010, so this visit was an opportunity to see how the boys have grown over the last year and a half. And they have grown, especially in the hair department! All four of them have flaxen blonde hair and are wearing it long.

Nine year-old Liam, the eldest, has the longest hair, although I do not have a photo to prove it. When I asked him, he claimed his mother’s hair was still longer than his, but from my teasing perspective, it was a tie. Liam has really filled out since I last saw him – he looks broad and solid in a way that is not obvious when compared to the frames of his parents, who are both slender ex-professional dancers.

Seven year-old Conan wears his hair the shortest of the four boys.

As he has grown, he has remained slim like his mother, to the point that his next two youngest brothers, Gillian and Noel, probably weigh close to as much as him. Conan’s fleet, agile build recently earned him a selection to a national sports scholarship program.

From the Zurich and Winterthur area, the program gathered a few thousand (?) children for a few days of general athletic testing – running, jumping, etc. – and Conan was one of approximately 60 who were selected to continue in the program. The selected kids now follow a succession of modules that introduce them to specific sports, with the goal of eventually grooming national athletes in the sports for which the children show the greatest potential.

I think PJ and Sara would normally prefer to allow their children to choose their activities in a more open, organic way than in a programmatic national selection process such as this one. But Conan is obviously very excited, both about the activities and about the prestige of being selected. And his parents seem curious to see the results of what is certainly a rare opportunity.

Conan’s sports program also raises a sibling rivalry dynamic, as apparently his older brother Liam was not selected for the program when he participated in the initial testing.

I remember when, for my brother Nik and me, our different activity choices helped form two individuals out of brothers who had previously copied each other in most activities. In retrospect, this process was not always driven by the positive side of the equation, i.e. with my efforts leading to success and reinforcement. It was as much about dealing with disappointments and, from a sibling perspective, building my identity around pursuits in which my brother would not outshine me. Nik was the faster runner and the higher jumper; he was also more artistic and social than me. So I looked to leadership and academic activities, and to sports that favoured my strength and size advantages – even if I might have liked to learn to draw like Nik.

For my young cousins Liam and Conan, it will be interesting to see how Conan’s national sports program helps shape each one’s choices of pursuits.

Five year-old Gillian seems to be the chattiest brother at the moment. He also seems to be most aware of when a camera is pointing at him, which inevitably means that half or more of my photos from the visit are of Gilly. Here is a photo of him doubling on Conan’s bike:

And then scooting during a long, rainy walk:

Incidentally, on our long walk, PJ and Sara showed us a big, empty house and yard that has been a creative preoccupation of theirs for over a year. A wealthy family owns the property, but the will from a previous generation requires that it remain in the family. None of the surviving family members chose to live there, so it has remained empty for the last 20 years or so. Approximately two years ago the family advertised that they were open to suggestions from the public about what to do with the property. PJ and Sara, a bit unexpectedly for them, found themselves overcome with creative ideas for the property, which they organised into a proposal and sent to the owners. It is difficult to tell how or when the family will decide what to do with the property, or how they will use the ideas submitted to them. But PJ and Sara still seem very engaged with the possibilities, whatever comes of it, and were keen to show the property to us.

Here are a couple of photos of the property, as well as one of PJ trying to control the trespassing attempts of Conan and Gilly:

On my last evening at the Narbutas house, I let Conan use my camera for a while and he shot a well composed series of portraits of Gilly making faces. Here is a slideshow of some of Gilly’s best poses:

Noel is the youngest of the four boys, at four years old. When we last met him, he was a big, pudgy, happy toddler. But now he has joined the running, sweating, up-and-down pace of his older brothers. He has also grown a very respectable head of blonde hair.

Noel remains a big dude. Size-wise, he could be Gilly’s twin brother, despite the year and bit of age that separates them. He is still in the early years of his rambunctious-ness, meaning that he has not yet learned, as his older brothers have, to manage his energy output to avoid the big, calorie-depleted, sleep-deprived crash. I am sure our visit disrupted Noel’s usual activity-meal-nap balance, so we witnessed a couple such crashes. A quick snack or nap would return him to action, and to his characteristic, full-face grin.

Here is Noel on an energy burst:

Next in an energy lull:

After our visit to Zurich, Jon, Joan and I made two contrasting day trips from Geneva to neighbouring France: first to the chilly Aiguille du Midi station, which is adjacent to the summit of Mt. Blanc, high above Chamonix; and the next day to the warm, lakeside spa town of Annecy.

The ride up the Aiguille du Midi was a highlight for me. During my three years in Switzerland, I have gravitated to the highest and most famous mountains in the western Alps, such as:

  • The Matterhorn and Monte Rosa above Zermatt;
  • The Dom above Saas-Fee;
  • The Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau (the Ogre, Monk and Virgin) above Grindelwald and Lauterbrünnen;
  • The Aletsch Glacier that flows down the other side of those last three peaks into the Rhône Valley; and
  • The Mt. Blanc massif, the highest in the Alps, above Chamonix.

That said, I have never stared at Mt. Blanc in the same way as I have at the others. I have travelled a few times to the Chamonix Valley, but each time I bypassed the mountain to ski or to visit with friends further up the valley. I had therefore never ridden the cable car up to the Aiguille du Midi station, which, at 3,800m, stands more or less nose-to-shoulder with the 4,800m peak of Mt. Blanc.

As well as its view of the highest point in the Alps, the Aiguille du Midi station is remarkable as a feat of high mountain engineering. It is 40m lower than the highest cable car station in the Alps – the Kleine Matterhorn station above Zermatt – but its impossible setting is considerably more impressive than that of its Swiss competitor. Here are some photos I “borrowed” from the internet to compare the settings of the two stations. As the photo of the Aiguille du Midi shows, the station is perched atop a jagged rock spire, and in many places, carved deep into the rock.

Kleine Matterhorn station, Zermatt, Switzerland (source: Zermatt Tourism)

Aiguille du Midi station, Chamonix, France (source: Wikipedia)

Drawing from my own photos of the Aiguille du Midi station, here is one of its two components:

The cable car from below arrives in the middle of the Aiguille’s inferior peak, on the left. The bridge connects the arrival point with an elevator that is carved like a chimney into the rightmost peak, called the piton central, and which carries passengers up to the terrasse du Mont Blanc at the summit. There are other tunnels and stairways throughout the station that lead to different viewing platforms. Unfortunately during our visit the elevator in the piton central was closed, meaning there was no access to the terrasse at the summit. But there were still plenty of platforms from which to gulp in the abundant scenery.

The Mt. Blanc summit itself is less dramatic those of other mountains in the surrounding massif. In the following photo, Mt. Blanc is the rounded white (duh) bulge behind the jagged summit ridge of Mt. Maudit.

Turning clockwise, here is a panorama that starts from Mt. Blanc on the left, descends via the Glacier des Bossons into Chamonix town. From the town, the valley descends to the left towards Geneva, and rises to the right towards Argentière. If your eyesight is strong (and you click on the image for a larger copy), on the horizon you can see the distant white line of the Jura Mountains that rise above the far side of Geneva.

Once again pivoting clockwise, here is a tight photo of the Aiguille Verte:

Another pivot brings into focus my favourite view: that of the bulkier Grandes Jorasses on the left of the following photo, the eye-catching pinnacle of the Dent du Géant on the right, and the Vallée Blanche and the tributary glaciers of the Mer de Glace below.

In the foreground of the above photo, you can see skiers inching down the ridge from the Aiguille du Midi to the beginning of the epic Vallée Blanche ski route. I had never paid attention to the Vallée Blanche before skiing in the Chamonix Valley, and had not seen it before this trip up the Aiguille du Midi. But now that I have seen it, I can think of little else I want to do with my holidays next winter: a 20km, six-hour descent from the Aiguille du Midi through some of the most famous mountain scenery in the world, passing the Dent du Géant, the Grandes Jorasses, the Mer de Glace… If my obsession persists into next winter, I suspect I will work on my skiing skills through the early season, before trying the Vallée Blanche in March of 2013.

Here is a photo of two puny skiers starting their descent through the grandest of landscapes:

Here is a photo of Jon and Joan, shivering in the chill wind:

Aside from cursing at the cold, we chatted throughout our visit about the absurdity of a human being appearing in that setting. We left Chamonix’s cafés and shops at 1,000m, were whisked in the bubble of the cable car up to 3,800m, to a station bored into a vertiginous rock tower. The altitude had us puffing as we climbed the stairs; the icy wind had us shivering. And although there are hospitable touches such as a heated restaurant and gift shop, we remarked that if the cable car stopped running for any reason, we would be completely stranded, dependent on a helicopter rescue.

The absurdity of humans strolling and picnicking in that setting is in part a testament to the imagination and skill of its engineers, but the Aiguille du Midi also represents an extreme in rapidly transferring everyday people from their everyday comfortable environment to one of the most inhospitable settings in the world.

The next day the three of us drove to Annecy – a world away from the dramatic atmosphere of the high Alps. The snowy peaks are still visible from Annecy, but you view them as you stroll along the banks of aquamarine Lake Annecy, as you sip a glass of wine in the sun at one of the town’s many terrasses, or as you glimpse them between the buildings in the historic old town. Annecy is busy and a bit kitsch – it has been a favourite French tourist destination for centuries, after all – but it remains comprehensively pleasant and pretty.

We ate lunch and spent a lazy afternoon walking in the old town, in the hills above town, and along the lakeside. I only pulled out my camera a few times, leading to the following random assortment of photos.

Although it was only for a week, I was very happy to have this extended visit with Jon and Joan. My photos mostly illustrate our destinations, but the invisible highlights for me were the car rides and meals, during which we chatted and caught up on each other’s lives.  Apart from my wife, parents and siblings, they are among my closest relatives. Both of them have a reflective, ambitious approach to life that I admire and to which I relate. During my teenage and young adult years, they generously and regularly allowed me to freeload at their house and on some of their family vacations, during which time I had the pleasure of watching their three sons grow from little boys into young men. I was also fortunate to observe Jon and Joan’s excellent parenting – another quality of theirs I admire. I have not seen enough of them since adulthood overcame me, so I appreciated having this rare extended visit with them.

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