Today I saw so few planes in the sky. Many years ago I lived in Geneva, Switzerland for a year. It’s important to clarify because some other years ago I lived near Geneva, New York, a much smaller town. My year at the Université de Genève was solitary, not by choice, but because Switzerland, for foreigners, is always an experience in social distancing. And maybe for the Swiss themselves but I am not here to make vast generalizations about a small country.
I made a Greek friend, some German friends, an Italian friend who was a dancer and died the following year, two Albanian classical musician friends and a few Senegalese dance and party partners. Most of the other graduate students I met were very serious about their political science, their NGO, their CERN but I was there doing a masters in literary aesthetics which no one has ever heard of. I had no international acronym. A dear German cousin took me out now and then and I visited his family and it turns out that I was often riding my bike past the apartment building of my father’s first wife. My seminars were entertaining and snow fell early in the year and thickly. I turned 30 there in the international dormitory on top of a hill.
Today is a difficult day to write about anything but the news but I have set myself this challenge so I will continue. I loved the heady conversations I had with people in multiple languages and I don’t know what I learned about literary aesthetics but the fact that such a degree even exists delights something deep in my brain. The faculty were extremely well paid and said ‘tu’ to us and went out for coffee with us and were interested in their students. I was lonely nonetheless in the way a 30 year old woman begins to be lonely. I believed I needed to find love, in order to find the means to create a new family. All around me people were cheating on their wives and girlfriends at the university. I went to one wedding but it was so odd because it was more like a planned marriage than a true love marriage. It was like it was what had to happen.
My body was happy in Geneva. I joined the rowing team and we rowed big heavy wooden boats across the lake during wild storms. In the depth of winter when the lake water was a thick 2 degrees Celsius I saunaed naked with men and women at night and jumped into that heart attack water. I had my mountain bike and my snowboard and I headed uphill with one or the other whenever the weather permitted. The university offered a whitewater kayaking class and we went on all the rivers we could. Every day included phenomenology, cold water and a lonely wooden bed. I felt so nineteenth century. Kant’s sublime was all around us for the tasting. And then sometimes when it was just too dark and cold we all piled into one dorm room and made fondue from a cheap supermarket mix and the whole hallway stank, of us from all over the world, of cheese, of the giddiness of not being Swiss.
The sun set so early those late winter evenings or sometimes didn’t even seem to appear. The sky was leaden and gray as in all the French poetry. But, that year, when I rode my bike home in the icy cold nights, I had a new friend. He, or she, maybe a genderless being, waited at the top of the hill, right above my dorm building, in the black sky whenever I came home after 10 pm.
I looked at the golden tail and I thought about the last time people had seen it in the sky, thousands of years ago. It will not be back in my lifetime, or my son’s or even his grandchildren. I would dismount my bike, stand looking up at the sky, breathing hard from the big hill and taste that exquisite sadness that is so joyful – we are nothing but dust, but such beautiful dust. I stood and looked at it up in the sky until I got too cold and had to park my bike and go to bed. The comet wasn’t my comet but somehow it was there when I came home alone and went to bed alone. Four thousand years ago, I like to think, looking at that comet gave someone else comfort too.