I must begin by telling you I was already too late.
The sun was already on its way down on the Zurich Flughafen when I arrived. I take a few train rides more to get to my destination; St. Gallen, St. Margrethen, and finally towards Bregenz, which lay on the Austrian side of the Rhein. But I get off somewhere in between, in a small town, on what was barely a train station. The sign greets me with its name, Lustenau. No one gets off but me, and I imagine no one else got on, too. On the platform and in the dark, I could make out two feminine figures. We approached each other, quiet as clouds. By the lamp light, they looked exactly alike, tall, blond and beautiful, save for a couple of decades in between them. The younger one calls out, Miguel? Immediately I know they are Thomas’ family. After all, who else in Austria knows I exist, let alone my name, and that I am arriving at exactly that moment? How I met Thomas is another story, set further away, in Tokyo -- but let’s save that for another time. What matters is that we have become close friends despite our distance and that I was there.
They embrace me welcome, Natascha, his sister, and Birgit, their mother. In the night, they drove me back home where Robert, the father, was waiting for us. Heil, he greets me with a smile warm as a hearth, and a bottle of Lustenau’s own Mohren Brau beer. From the kitchen, Birgit emerges with a platter of sausages and cheese. Round the table we gathered well into the night, the whole time miming all the words we could not say; and there we so many. But nevermind the language barrier. When you are home, hospitality becomes its own language: measured in gesture and colored by warmth. So that an emptied out plate says I’m glad to be here. And a hand reaching out to fill it again says you are more than welcome. To tell you the truth, the only German I knew at that point was danke, and that was all I really had to say.
A few days later, Thomas arrived at Dornbirn by train, coming from Vienna, where he lives and works as a nurse. Standing tall on the platform, you could easily imagine him being a soldier from another time, in sepia and waiting to be sent out and never seen again. The sight of us disarms him. Gruß Gott, mein brudi. At night we drove to Lindau and walked by the Bondensee in silence, taking photographs of boats both docked and out on the lake, of trees, and of each other. Manila, my own home, felt like a lifetime away.
The next morning, I woke up to a busy household, Robert figuring out how to set the navi on the car --a Citroen Picasso, Birgit magically making a feast appear on the table as all mothers do, and Natascha preparing bevarages and setting the table. Meanwhile, Thomas and I were figuring out our plans for the day ahead of us. Once we were all done with our own tasks, we sat down and shared breakfast. Ham, salami, cheeses I couldn’t name, eggs, bacon smoked by an uncle in the family, and some mohn semmel bread. The morning was quiet, and somehow electric. Perhaps, the tension of a nearing goodbye. If I close my eyes now I could still tell who sat where on the table, like a Norman Rockwell painting; it was quite hard to forget.
So with full stomachs, we began our departure. Packing our bags in the car, making sure we had the vignette on the windshield, to be able to drive through Switzerland, adjusting our seats for maximum comfort. Birgit running about as mothers do, giving us reminders for the road and packing us sandwiches from the morning’s leftovers. Before saying goodbye, I gather them in the garden. Sit here, you lovely people. And I take their photograph.
They wave to us as we back out of the driveway and we wave back. I realize it would take many years until I see them again, or maybe even never. But that’s the way it goes, isn’t it? Perhaps it is enough to have known them and to have known that elsewhere in this big bad world, there are quiet pockets of home, reducing it to the size of a dinner table, or a car travelling at speed, where everyone is an arm’s length away and loved. I pair my phone’s bluetooth with the car’s stereo, put on some music, and set off.
Fahren, fahren, fahren auf der autobahn ... Fahren, fahren, fahren auf der autobahn ...
Slowly the names of exits turn from German to French: Winterthur, Zurich, Baden, Bern, Payerne, Lausanne, Geneva. The Jura mountains stand by our side for at least an hour. Then all the vehicles slow down, forming lines to crawl through the border, leaving Switzerland, entering France, up an into the Alps.
It was almost impossible for us to drive fast. Every now and then we slowed down to prolong a view of a mountainside, not one of us uttering a word. After all, what can be said about the Alps? They are older than spoken word itself. Only a sigh would even be remotely appropriate --of relief, of admiration, of all the things we can only feel and not say. Like this, we traced the road leading to Mieussy, and to you.
Someone was being buried when we arrived. Men clad in black carried a coffin up the cemetery, on a hill. Thomas and I decided to wait a until they were done and gone. Mieussy was incredibly quiet. Walking through the village, you could see almost everything was closed, save for a cafe-bar a little ways down from the church. The door was open and we took our seats --there was no one else in there. From time to time you could hear a motorbike pass by, rumbling through, under the lazy summer sun. That went on for a while, until the barman emerged from the back asking for our drinks. I come closer to order us espressos. In my periphery I notice a peculiar bottle of liquor, larger than usual and filled with various stems and flowers. No labels, no brand. I never had it but I knew it was gnole —what the peasants made and drank to keep warm. I had only read about them in your novels. The barman found it strange, but obliged my request for a taste. He gave us a glass each, which we later realized was enough to get our heads feeling a little lighter than usual.
From my bag I bring out a little envelope, my reason for being there. You didn’t have to write me back, you see. I was nothing more than a university student who chanced upon your books and fell in love. Your biggest fan, in the simplest terms. And when I wrote you, I didn’t even know where to send it. Just your name and the region in the Alps. I asked the herons to take my words to you. From your letter back, I read the first line:
The herons came out of the sky carrying your precious words.
And I realized, there I was slightly drunk on gnole, more than ten thousand miles away from home. Funny how I’ve closed the distance, but not the time. I used to think that one day I could just knock on your door, shake your hand, and tell you how much your words meant to me. How I tucked your book under my pillow at night, or how I would go over a single line of your poem again and again, like a sieve straining sand. There was so much in so little. I can’t do that now, but I don’t want to let go either. An hour and an espresso later, when we were decidedly ourselves again, we got up, paid, and went on our way.
By the church, two nuns were walking by. We approach and I ask, scraping the very bottom of the barrel that contained my knowledge of the French language, excusez-moi s'il vous plaît, où est la tombe de John Berger? They smile like it was a secret and gesture the direction. Through this gate, up the path and turn right at the very end. Merci beaucoup, merci.
I look at the names on the graves we walked past, trying to see if any of them might have been mentioned in your writing. But really I may have just been occupying my mind from the anticipation. I felt heavy with every step, the gravity of what lay ahead bearing down on me. But we have to go on, don’t we?
It was a beautiful day, John. From where you lay and where I stood, we could see all over the village. I looked down and the first flowers were blooming over you. I picked a few and tucked it into a book of yours that I had brought --from my shelf to your grave. A collection of poems to keep me company on this journey, where I keep your letter pressed in, safe. I felt like leaving something in return. Having nothing else, I plant my bookmark in the soil as if to say, I will always be on this page. Silly now that I think about it, but I meant it nonetheless. Oh how I meant it.
It must have been an hour I spent by your grave, I can’t remember now -- but I felt like waiting. I didn’t know what for, but I felt it anyway. Or maybe I was just waiting to formulate some kind of conclusion. That I finally met you, in my own way. When it was time to go, Thomas and I shared a moment of silence for you. It felt like a prayer and it felt like a poem. The kind you can’t hear, but you can understand. I looked one last time, taking a mental photograph, one that can never be torn or creased or lost, one I will always have.
Back on the road, we drove a little further, to Quincy. Just to see where you lived. But no one was home. We parked the car by the roadside and rested a little. There was a kind of familiarity in the place. Beyond the fence, the cattle reminded me of the first story in Pig Earth, about a slaughter. The silent road reminded me of Lilac and Flag, where is everyone? Have they all gone to the city, longing to come back here? The sky reminded me of a poem:
canopyless sky of moments lived
of millennia powdered into blue
Some things just make sense. Beside me, I notice Thomas looking around too. I wonder what he must have thought. He has never read a single word you’ve written. And yet he brought me here. Mein bruder if I ever had one. Before we drove off I slip a letter into the mailbox, for your son, Yves. How I would have loved to meet him. The next time you come, he writes me back some time later, the door will be open.
In the late afternoon, we drove to Les Houches where we planned to stay the night. On the way, we stopped by a Carrefour, looking for dinner. We ended up buying a pack of salami, smoked salmon, cheese, apple juice and a baguette. Then we sat at the back of the car in the parking lot and shared dinner, greasy hands and all. People were coming and going around us, and I watched them. All with places to go and things to do. In the distance and in every direction, mountains surrounded us. I felt miniscule among them; how they cut the through the sky like walls. Packing everything back in the car, I see your book. I open it and find your letter again. At home, there must have been gap in the shelf, no more than an inch wide. And yet we have reduced the distance between here and there to the size of an envelope. One that has returned to sender, one that brought me with it.
Ahead of us lay a cold night, a morning up the Montblanc, a drive back to Zurich where I was set to take a bus going elsewhere. But before all that, I look back at the past few days and just laugh.
It was the greatest pleasure to meet you, John.