Last train home

14 November 2021 13:17 

Saturday, 13 November, Chur to Montpellier

It was early afternoon when I got in to Mulhouse, having left Chur a little after nine. Mulhouse has a dingy, crappy little train station: peeling paint anywhere you look, weeds wherever weeds could grow, a sad, run down feeling to it all. It was a fitting re-entry into France, which compared to Switzerland, sometimes feels like a third world country.

The atmosphere of the train station matched my mood. I was tired. It had been a busy few months. I’m not fifty anymore.

~ Ask me about a Bewilligung

A month ago in Chur I had packed all non-essential items: I disassembled the bed frame and slept on the mattress directly on the floor; boxed up all kitchen items but for one bowl, knife and spoon, and one pan, used my bamboo cup for water and coffee, wine and whiskey. The Ikea couch/bed thing was dismembered and re-interned in its original three shipping boxes.

Two months before I had finalized arrangements to continue working for Hamilton full time from France. There had been two silver linings in the covid-19 cloud: first, sales of our ICU and transport ventilators had been spectacular; second, the necessity of working from home had demonstrated the possibility of working from home, and since working from home in Chur is the same as working from home in Montpellier, for much of the last year I had been in France. So on December 31st I would no longer be employed by Hamilton Medical AG, and on January 1st, I would be an employee of Hamilton Medical SARL.

Move day came: Monday, November 8.

The day was cold and clear, no need to worry about rain. The moving truck was scheduled to arrive at 2:00PM, and that gave me enough time: up early to wrap the mattress in thick plastic, then encircle it with that weird, wide roll of industrial Saran-Wrap 1Sorry Bill, no Mazola to go with that … Continue reading, then schlep everything down the elevator and out on the street. While humping everything from the top floor, down the elevator, and to the lobby or the small alley out the front door, I noted that I was moving yet again, and again doing it all myself.

Well before noon, all was ready to go.

A little bit before the truck was to arrive I received a text saying it would be an hour late. A bit later there was another text, another delay. I worried. I had found the movers online, a Portuguese company, and while the references appeared bona-fide, I wondered that having received a deposit for half the move fee, no movers would appear. Or, worse: after loading it up, the truck would deliver my goods not to Montpellier, but instead Albania.

But soon enough I had a call from the driver, who was in the Altstadt, but having a hard time finding my place. I walked over to Kornplatz, and there was his truck, and Daniel, Romanian, who spoke excellent English. As I was telling him how best to get closest to the apartment, a pretty Chur policewoman (PCPW) came up to us and asked if we had a Bewilligung.

I didn’t exactly know that word, but got enough of the ‘-willigung’ part to know it must have to do with permission, and since she was looking at Daniel’s truck, I assumed some sort of papers were needed to have a vehicle in the city center.

Unofficial transcription follows:

Me: Well, I am moving today, and the truck will be in the town for only a short period time.2All translation from German/Swiss … Continue reading
PCPW: Yes, but do you already have a Bewilligung?
Me: No.
PCPW: Well, I’m afraid I have to give you a ticket.
Me: Can I go get a Bewilligung now?
PCPW: Yes, I must still give you the ticket.
Me: Fine, but once I have a Bewilligung, will that cancel the ticket?
PCPW: You’ll have to talk to the officials at the police station [which as it happens is right on Kornplatz]

I took the ticket, and thanked her. I went into the police station, and five minutes later walked out with a Bewilligung. I’d have deal with the rest of this tomorrow.

The next few hours were spent loading Daniel’s truck. Being November and in the mountains, it was dark early, but I think by 1900 we were done. I tried to pass him 50€, and mentioned my wife would do the same in Montpellier, but he refused. 3Daniel would not be so lucky in … Continue reading

Eighteen hours later everything would be in Montpellier, already unloaded by Daniel, Annie, and Kieren, then put away.

After Daniel left I texted Andras, whom I was staying with for the rest of the week. We made arrangements for him to pick me up near the Calanda restaurant.

The easiest way to drink cognac in the shower is from the bottle, but only if the bottle has a long neck, like the Courviosier (see photos). Snifters? Don’t need to stink’n snifters. I was pretty tired yet still wound up after the last few days of packing and moving, and the hot shower and slugs of cognac were the remedy.

~ Making it up as we go along

When we first arrived in Europe, in France, in 2011, we could live in the country for up to a year, and our children could attend school, but Annie and I could not work, and we had to pay for private health insurance. Repeat for 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.

In 2016 we got upgraded: our visas were now good for ten years, we could participate in the national health care system, and we could work in the EU. So this was a bit better than things were before, but still not optimal.

Eighteen months later, under some unlikely conditions and despite my dodgy qualifications, I landed a job at a Swiss company. Since Switzerland is not in the EU, there was yet another bureaucratic hurdle, but with the backing of a company, we got through that okay. This was another improvement: we could live in Europe, we could stay for a while, we were mostly integrated in the system, and we had a job, but that was in another country. Now, four years on, or depending on how you count, ten years on, it’s come together: permits and papers, a place we like, the means to stay there, and the job is in the same locale. It boggles the mind.

Tuesday morning. I first went to the Chur police station to see about this Bewillligung thing. In hindsight, I don’t think the Chur police officials were accustomed to their tickets being disputed.

I went into the police station, up to window, handed the woman both the ticket and Bewilligung, and explained what happened. She asked me a few questions, then asked me to wait, whereupon she walked to a place where I could not see her. A few minutes later she returned with another woman, and asked me to again explain what had happened. I did so. They both then disappeared.

About fifteen minutes later, I heard a buzzing sound, and turned to see on a distant wall a thick metal door open; a man, I’d guess in his late twenties came out. He wore police issue boots, those loose fitting, many-pocketed military style fatigue pants, and a police issue red/blue sweater. I’m guessing he could bench press about 375lbs and squat around 450lbs, and was probably surprisingly fast for someone his size. He could have been a linebacker for the Detroit Lions. He said hello and his demeanor was friendly enough, but he stood just a bit closer than I expected.

I felt both flattered and annoyed. I guess I came across as some sort of big, old, threatening, half-crazy fuck.

He had clearly been briefed. He asked if in fact the moving truck had gone into the Altstadt before I had obtained the Bewilligung. I said yes, that was the case. He replied that he was very sorry, there was nothing he could do, and that I must pay the fine. Well, one has to at least try…

Afterwards I went to apartment to gather up the rest of my things, and hand over the keys to the building manager.

I’m leaving a great apartment, located downtown with a view of the mountains. The last time I had an apartment all to myself it was on the second floor of a formerly large home chopped into apartments, all windows in all rooms (a porch, then living room to kitchen to bedroom) faced west, with a view of Lake Champlain and beyond, the Adirondack Mountains.

I took one last turn around the apartment, ruminating on it all. To paraphrase Johnny Cash, I’ve lived many places:

Lander, San Antone, Spokane, Alexandria,
Burlington, Heidelberg, Fremont, Belmont,
Woodside, Santa Cruz, Mountain View, San Jose,
Charles Town, Montreal, Montpellier,
Marseille, La Garde, Switzerland, Leavenworth 4The Army base, not the prison.

I’ve had my share, man. 5You know what to do: click here.

I’m leaving a great apartment, which I found courtesy of a co-worker, an interesting guy whom I will not get to know as well as I like, Matthias: he’s a computer scientist, a nurse, a physicist, jazz piano and saxophone player, and a bicyclist, with an equally lovely and interesting partner, Julia. And it’s not just them. In leaving Chur, like all those other places, I’m leaving, have left, good friends. Given where we live, the vagaries of life, especially in the time of covid, it seems at best I’ll see only a few of them again.

~ Une soif d’être bleue 6A thirst to be blue. From Paul … Continue reading

I stayed the rest of the week with Andras, sailing buddy who’s a guitar playing civil engineer. Next summer we’ll be sailing on the Med. on his 10 meter sloop, which he keeps berthed not far from Montpellier. Thursday night my boss Adrienne hosted a small going away party. I brought gifts for those who had helped make my move happen: a bottle of Veuve Clicquot for her; a bottle of Laphroaig for her boss, Ralph: from Germany, director of our department, trombone player, who pushed through all the paperwork for my transfer; and last, numerous bottles of French red wine for Mike, fellow writer, previously a geo-physicist, also a musician who enjoys split tail skiing and spear fishing. It’s a good group.

Saturday morning, in his old, but well preserved BMW, Andras dropped me off at the Chur train station.

Although it started out clear, it soon become foggy, so that by the train pulled into Sargans, the castle on the hill was a ghosted, medieval silhouette. Sitting on the starboard side of the train, I could see the low layer of clouds above the Walensee, although the peaks of the nearby mountains were visible. No sailboats today, the silvergrey surface of the water was broken by a lone motorboat.

Later the train passed fields with tractors, headlights on, pottering along in fields. Crows are the most common bird: flying, walking, perched, always with attitude. In one field there’s a surprise of white and grey seagulls. Along Lake Zurich there were modern, clean, expensive waterfront homes, and on the water were shell crews, two or four team, always followed by the coach motorboat. There was a jogger plodding along, the cell phone held to his ear, making the jogging all the more awkward.

The Zurich train station was unusually busy. I carried my four bags to a café, ordered coffee and chocolate croissants. I was next to the clock tower meeting place: a tall, lovely woman in a dark cloth coat and red beret met her friend in a down jacket and hiking boots; couples met up with other couples.

Now in Mulhouse, I immediately went to the platform for the train to Montpellier. I had been here many times already, there was nothing new to see. I paced on the platform, waiting for the TGV that originates in Luxembourg. I pondered again the consequences of moving back, giving up the Swiss visa: was it wise to give up our toehold in Switzerland, an island of security and unreality compared to the rest of the world? Given the way of the world, and the luck of having a choice, wouldn’t it better to move us all there?

The TGV to Montpellier arrived, and while making my way to my seat, I passed a pod of conductors, sitting, talking among themselves, more passengers than employees. I found my seat, then helped a woman travelling with her teenage son put a bag into the overhead compartment; unlike her he was Polynesian, and was physically fine, but seemed a good way on the spectrum, requiring a great deal of attention from her.

We travelled west and south: Belfort, Montbéliard, Besançon Franche-Comté. Then, the thing that had happened before happened again. 7See here, under One if by land. The world cracked open: the sky cleared, the sun came out, and the landscape had changed such that now there was no obstruction of the view, there were rolling fields green and gold and brown, the horizon was everywhere. There were clusters of oaks, rows of sycamores, lines of poplars. Beyond the horizon was the blue of the sky, a layer of clouds, then more blue. It felt expansive, there was a sense of possibility, freedom, a weight lifted.

Those mountains of Chur, of Switzerland, are beautiful, and depressing. 8A 1997 Time magazine essay by Roger … Continue reading

Later the conductors came around to check tickets. One of them spent about ten minutes talking with the young man, asking him about the trip, where he was going, if he had tried the jambon sandwich from the bistro car.

Take it all back.

In the evening the train arrives at the gare du Sud, the newer train station located away from the downtown. In the years ahead, I’ll still make this trip, Montpellier <–> Chur, just not so often, maybe twice a year now. And from now on, always, always, the return trip will be from the place I was only visiting, to home.

The cab ride home from the train station is also in a BMW, although considerably newer and nice than Andras’s. The gang was all there: les frères Sweetman: Andre and Kieran, with their lovely girlfriends Maëllys and Juliette, and Catherine-pig and Annie-girl.

It’s not so much where you are, as who you’re with.


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  1. Very nice; maybe the most evocative thing you've written.

    It's odd when, on the cusp of moving, you realize that you'll likely not see many of these people again.

    Fingers still crossed that we'll be able to visit you this coming summer. Annie (mine) has her toes crossed as well :)

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