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The secret in the foothills of Lucerne

It stopped me. It filled me. I needed it. It was not mine to keep…

London had enveloped me like an old friend despite the absence of spring. We knew each other’s winters: cold hands, warm heart. I devoured the streets and conversations with friends, old and new. Big plans, quiet fears and new love stories were spun in lounge rooms, libraries, bars and amid pedestrians on Euston Road.

Criss-crossing the Thames, my walks befriended a handful of bridges: Lambeth, Westminster, Waterloo. I felt instant affection for the people riding bicycles with cellos on their backs. I laughed out loud as a French couple mock fighting caught my eye. In the belly of the city I got ‘Tube dirt’ stuck in my nostrils.

Sometimes I ate breakfast for dinner.

Enclosed in synthetics, cotton, wool and my red down-filled jacket, I let old habits and a handful of insecurities fall away. They slipped through my wrapping so I felt the thrill of exposure while still buried within my clothing. I walked with purpose but ease; I sat less self-consciously.

London: you and me.

I let the world wash around me, not trying to pin it with a phrase for later. The relief was palpable. Looking for the ghosts of poets, I had my spiritual experience atop Primrose Hill with a few thousand others as we worshiped the finally-appearing sun. Blake and Keats were on my mind…


I hadn’t taken a direct route. There were 10 days between London and Lucerne. I dipped into whole other worlds. Places that would make me long for what I’d find in the foothills of Lucerne, not knowing I craved it until it was upon me.

With freshly-shined shoes I smiled in the sky above London City Airport and made for the English Channel. Guernsey was a perfect little pocket of seclusion, off the coast of France.

Here I joined my mum, who’d been traversing the wilds of northern Scotland. We revelled in the sumptuousness of our shared surrounds on this little island idyll. Aware not every mother and daughter could pack and assemble a warm, close-quarter relationship in foreign lands, I was grateful. Glad to have her at all. Rambling to fortifications, in and out of shops and around little harbours on the island of Sark, we found our rhythm in a way parents and adult children don’t or can’t often do.

My mobile phone had no service. The untethering was delightful.

Mum and I had another shot of luxury in Zurich: it was the kind of hotel where the in-room compendium has helpful information about where to land your helicopter.

“We could get used to this,” we grinned.

Then alone, the familiar momentum of discovery pushed me out of Zurich Hauptbahnhof; the train deposited me at the shores of Lake Lucerne; the mountain-as-city-backdrop was Mount Pilatus.

In search of gods and dragons and mystical things that give high places their allure, I’d let the world fall away at Pilatus’ peak. Shivering, I ate apple strudel in a cloud shroud at 2,132 metres. Going down again, I alighted the cable car half-way. That jester of a sun was reappearing. A jangling chorus of cow bells from nearby paddocks accompanied my hike down, earth solidly beneath my feet but my quadriceps jellying.

Little yellow ‘wanderweg’ signs guided me past wildflowers in meadows, postcard-like houses tucked in forest clearings… It was just as pretty as it sounds but a little thread in the back of my mind had been pulled. I tried to remember to enjoy letting the world just wash around me. Instead, everything began to slosh a little.

I wondered at how the following day’s gloom magnified my distance from home; how the language I couldn’t penetrate sounded amplified. This was the flip side of wandering; when all the golden moments of discovery are forgotten, the sheer thrill at dipping into another world can’t be conjured. My reference points had fallen away, slipping with the heavy early morning rain down the city’s storm water drains.

Outside seemed vaguely perilous. My reflection in shop windows was just as foreign to me as the streets themselves and the cars darting from the ‘wrong’ direction. Fondue would fix this! But when I found the restaurant the heat and pungent sweet/savoury fug in the tiny place pushed me back onto the street.

Tears sprang quickly in the basement bathroom of a nearby old town cafe. I was adrift in the world instead of revelling. The sting of my nana’s recent death hit and my heart broke a little for my dad; I craved companionship; a fissure of fear opened within me. ‘What if?s’ whirled within it. And: Where had my ‘London self’ gone? I wanted the salve of luxurious places, however fleeting. I didn’t want to cry in sharp bursts in a basement bathroom in Lucerne.

Someone was waiting for the stall.


I wonder what’s up there?

“Excuse me,” I said to the group of students at the picnic table while motioning towards the view, “I’m just going to take a picture.”


Stepping off the hillside path into the small stone rotunda, I smelled the beer and mused at their easy, laughing conversation around the table. They didn’t need to photograph Lucerne and its lake aglow in twilight sun. It was just part of their slice of the world; unremarkable. I nodded my thanks and continued further up the hill.

Then it stopped me. It filled me.

The group I had just left began to sing. They were a choir. Quietly, tentatively, they sought their harmonies with each other, voices spread across octaves. Finding their path within the piece and growing louder but somehow more delicate by the moment, their notes spilled into the evening air: a fusion of humanity and grace. Their song drifted up the forested foothills, beguiling and transfixing. I dared not move. They were spinning magic into my soul. The sopranos deftly touched the high places I longed to reach; the basses, mellifluous and alluring, curled themselves into my neglected corners and made them resonate.

The notes drifted and dispersed, little nothings in the twilight, never to be held but only felt as they sent an elixir into my bones. I basked. As the sun slid further behind the hill, I watched the honeyed stone walls of the old town, looked up to the endless arc of sky and felt the kiss of night air on hands.

I was being reassembled. This serendipitous serenade lifted me beyond Lucerne. It’s now written within me.

Your song will come. Even when you are adrift.

Keep walking.


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