Questions in the Alps
Heartfelt farewells at the temporary bus stop at Huémoz, Bellevue in Switzerland
(As in my 2012 trek this essay is one that is not specifically germane to Gravity From Above. If you wish to skip it you will do no harm to the overall flow of my exploration into European puppetry. Nevertheless you might find it interesting.)
The journey from Lyon to Switzerland proved to be a lot more difficult than I had originally intended. It turned out that the tracks from Chamonix to Martigny had been buried by an avalanche, a detail I was not apprised of until I closed in on Chamonix while riding a cogwheel train up the valley. Thanks to the fine French railway system I was interminably delayed at various stops far longer than expected. My desperation to escape France (really the SNCF) and my relief at finally crossing the border to the land of dependable train service were equal in measure. Instead of arriving at my destination in the late afternoon, I found myself on the last bus of the day riding from Aigle to Huémoz around 11:00 at night with a load of noisy (Who knew?) local Swiss students. Getting off the bus and being confused by new road construction I eventually found my way up to Chalet Bellevue and was greeted warmly by a L’Abri helper named Hillary and was shown to my apartment in Chalet Les Mélèzes.
The L’Abri sign amidst Swiss Road reconstruction: A good metaphor for this moment in time.
The L’Abri Fellowship Institute is a place I have visited ever since my original time as a student in, what now seems like ancient history, 1978. This was now my eighth visit. I come here to visit old friends, to meet new students and I often find myself with new friends. At least ten L’Abri students have found their way up to Alaska to spend time with me in Haines. I also come to give lectures. This time my topics were to include Social Media and Horizontal Propaganda, Conceptual Humanity, Georgian Music and Dance, and A brief History of Puppetry. (Aha there is a puppet connection!) I would be staying three weeks. With my mother’s passing last year I felt that needed to come back to this place which has had such an impact upon my life and to reflect on things.
And then there was the perennial question of what the students were up to.
The ghosts of L’Abri in a thick fog surrounding the original Chalet Les Mélèzes
L’Abri is an unusual place. Since 1955 it has been a refuge of sorts, for people needing to ask questions and work through ideas. L’Abri is Christian, but does not force its students to convert, nor even pressure them in such ways. Certainly many folks who have not been Christian at all, or had fairly heterodox concepts, have come through, as well as those understandably confused by today’s propagandistic religions and anti-religions. And one thing I look for when I come is the general mood of the students, which often mirrors the assumptions of the time.
Firewood in the Snow of a Mysterious Walk through the Fog Above Huémoz
And this time was no exception. One interesting point was that there were a couple of students who did not fit the usual graduate/post-graduate age. Of the approximately 30 students who were coming and going there was a healthy mix of ages ranging from 18 years old, the majority in their 20s, several in their 30s and a couple of guys in their 60s. And this generated a few interesting discussions about the difference between the generations. And indeed the difference is notable. And it forced me to consider the difference time makes. I am old enough to have originally come through here in the late 1970s. And over the years I have dropped in at a variety of times. In the 70s it seemed like a time you could seriously ask questions, without worrying about offending someone. During my one visit in the late 80s the students seemed as lackluster as that decade. In the early 90s things seemed to pick up. The students reflected the cynicism of that period, but were challenging, less interested in being pleasing. In 2005 the students still seemed a bit shell-shocked from the big event in 2001, yet they seemed eager to wrestle with ideas. This now was finally the Facebook/Smartphone generation. And that created a new mood entirely.
Looking down into the Rhone Valley
On one side I could characterize this period as the cuddling generation. It seemed that there were often students lounging around, snuggling on a couch somewhere. If I were to say anything I’d say the younger students were unfailingly nice. But I mentioned that to one student and then he corrected me. ‘Passive.’ He said. Then I replied “Nice wasn’t meant as a compliment.’ Many of the students were there for various emotional reasons, as has often been the case at L’Abri. And one got the feeling that Western society’s recent bout of over-sensitivity was also being reflected here. I felt the necessity of tip-toeing around certain issues more than usual. The question “Why did you come to L’Abri?” seemed more freighted than usual with danger than at anytime in the past. What used to be the introduction to an excellent conversation had now become more something you just talked about with your tutor, or your good friends.
Of course, these are generalizations. Several students did indeed come explore intellectual, creative or philosophical issues. A couple of girls just came because they could, with no pressing problems. And then there were the older and more experienced members of the cast who kept the conversations from dropping too much into self-conscious postmodernism. Joe, 61 years of age, often asked some of the questions that led to the most rewarding discussions. John, in his 30s, who’d recently come in from relief work in Lebanon brought some much needed experience of current events to the proceedings. Katie, who had worked in the political realm in London, raised some pertinent and well thought out questions. Kristen seemed to float around like a humorous butterfly, yet actually harbored many deeper thoughts, which came out whenever she spied an open moment at the meal discussions.
Three Graces waiting for the Discussion to begin at ‘Formal Meal’ (Rebekah, Flora & Sheila)
And there were many others: Sheila proved to be quite the growing artist. Hillary turned out to be a serious singer. Natalie from England honed in on many spiritual matters. James ,who I believe is 18, found a strange violet 80s style ski-suit he named Jumpy, which almost seemed to create an alter ego, and yet beneath the tweaked-out humor he also had very serious thoughts and questions on his mind as well. Coby, also 18, who probably has been getting comparisons to Clark Kent for several years now, and seemed to do enough exercises to match the image, was also revealed to have much on mind, as were most of the students. And probably the most memorable soul, and I would probably not be alone in this, was a tall Dutchman named Folkert, who spoke in an extremely matter-of-fact Dutch mode, elaborately retold books he read by C.S. Lewis or Kipling and worked on L’Abri’s computers, aging equipment to be sure. He shared the basement apartment of Chalet Les Mélèzes with me. And was ‘companionable’ (he’ll get the reference).
Folkert De Jong
Besides the changes in the mood of the students, there were many other changes as well. Changes in leadership, new workers, subtle indicators of a shift in time. And I had good conversations all round with workers past and present. There were intellectual discussions with Greg Laughery who had now retired. Good fellowship with Richard Bradford. A pleasant evening with Giandy and Karen Sandri’s family, who had all seemed to have discovered they had musical talent. I watched a bit of rugby with Prisca. Cole and Adam the sons of Dave and Anna tied each to trees on clear days. And I actually had the chance, since the equipment was with me, to film a couple of interviews with Gian (John) Sandri about the ideas he’s been working on since well before I first met him in 1978.
On the night before I left I stood between Chalets Bellevue and Mélèzes with P.O. (Per Ole, but these English speakers just can’t pronounce Danish right.) as wet pellets of snow came down upon us. We talked about art, about creating works in the spirit of being a servant, as Tarkovsky had said, about this new generation and the future of such a place. It was truly the kind of moment I come to this little village in the Alps for. A place where honest dialogue and questioning is still permitted.
Farewells in the Mirror of the 14:04 bus to Aigle. (Featured: Vincent, Coby, Doug, Rex, Kristen & Sherri-Lee)
The next day I took part in a growing tradition that had seemed to take on more new dimensions than I had remembered at anytime. Maybe it’s just the way the Swiss had mutated the road, and the strange temporary metal stairway they had put there, which both congested the passageway and at the same time had made the experience of departure more of ritual. Many have been the times I left L’Abri without as much as a soul noting me waiting for the bus to take me back down the hill. I remember good friend Vanessa waiting with me in 2005. But now people seemed to march to this central point of concentration at the new ‘bus stop’ a couple of times a week. Several students and workers came down to see me off when it was my turn. Kristen was leaving as well and so ten to 15 folks crowded on the freshly snow covered scaffolding. And it was an excellent ritual to receive. (Do you hear that Alaskans? We Alaskans tend to be wonderful at hellos, and severely deficient at farewells.)
Cassie comforts Kristen who is about to leave on the bus.
L’Abri remains important to the many who still come. The times are indeed changing and new challenges must be faced.
(Apologies for all of the names not mentioned.)
From a train nearing Berlin