by Sophia Tellen
It was a life well lived.
I recall his boyish smile, the beret tilted over his right eye—his strong, sinuous frame, the sap rising straight from the earth. Simmering beneath the surface, Michel was a burnished volcano.
Tall as a reed, proud and alone, he went out for his walk every day, whatever the weather. He was irresistibly magnetic; he drew the young and the not so young and turned them all into friends. Suddenly one would discover him the center of a little crowd. Wherever he was, beautiful women seemed to spring from nowhere; children ran to gather around him. And all this, without his ever lifting a finger.
I remember him in snippets. Like the day my younger son, then seven, suddenly needed a backpack on a Saturday after the shops had closed, that first week, just after we had arrived in Geneva twenty-five years ago, and temporarily housed in Thônex.
“Go to see Michel,” said my neighbor. “It’s easy to find him; just go out the back gate and follow the little path through this field, till you get to a cottage in the middle of a meadow. It is only a few minutes from here. Say Maryse sent you.”
“Not long afterwards my son returned with a small, well-weathered backpack, and a hamper full of strawberries.
“Michel told me to keep the backpack, Mum. Said he would not need it anymore.”
“But who exactly is Michel?” I asked our neighbour sometime later.
“Oh, you haven’t met him yet? He’s the most marvelous person. Everyone knows him. Just go along and introduce yourself. His front door is always open.”
We had just arrived in Geneva and had not yet been here for a week. A week later my older son needed a compass, on a Sunday.
“Go to see Michel,” said the same neighbor as before.
And half-an-hour later my eleven year-old came back with an old-fashioned compass and a hamper full of cherries.
“Michel told me to keep it, Mum. Said he did not need it anymore. And you know, he is an amazing person. You should visit him yourself.”
And so the day came when I went to see for myself. He was on the front balcony, in his front garden, bent over his geraniums. As I walked through the creaking garden gate, he undid his wiry, still youthful body and proffered a strong hand covered in earth. My right foot knocked over a saucer along the cemented path.
“I always keep a saucer of milk here for my hedgehogs. They come to feed early in the morning, before anyone else is around. There are two of them. Quite tame.”
He spoke as if he had always known me and gave me his hand. His firm, generous handshake made me welcome. He adjusted his beret and looked at me from behind his misty glasses.
“So you are the boys’ mother. Come inside and enjoy the chestnuts. I cooked them myself.”
It was dark in the front room as we entered. The curtains were half drawn, but a ray of light spilt onto the rough wooden floorboards. He walked over to the kitchen, took out his penknife, and began to peel the warm chestnuts. There was a whole basin of them.
“Let’s share them,” he said.
In my solitude being in a new country, and having to speak a new language, Michel became my first friend. With him one was always welcome—no need to phone in advance. But whenever one arrived, he was always ready. His shopping invariably consisted of delicacies to share. There were feasts of raspberries, strawberries, and cherries in and out of season, and wild fresh walnuts that a friend had brought from her farm. When Michel got to know me better, he began to tell me stories, and I gathered in the snippets like precious pieces of mosaic.
“I used to cycle to Italy,” he began one day. “Whenever I was free I’d jump on my bicycle and take off. There were not so many cars on the road then at the turn of the century. I was young and strong and never did need much money.” Enigmatically his eyes looked into the past.
“On one of these trips I ran into a problem,” he told me with a smile. “I had only one pair of jeans, you see. The ones I was wearing. And one day they split down the middle! I always had needle and thread, so I entered a little chapel in a side street, found a bench in the shadows and took my jeans off.”
With sure hands, Michel slowly lit his pipe.
“I was hoping to mend them before anyone else came in. But I had barely begun when a nun emerged from the Sacristy walked right up to me. ‘Let me do that for you, dear,’ she said, smiling. Then she took my jeans and walked off with them.” He laughed. “A few minutes later she was back with the machined jeans.”
I visited Michel often. Only the best and most exotic fruits, or slices of viande séchée, dried meat smoked in the Alps, were good enough for visitors.
“Come, let’s sit down inside,” he said with his boyish smile. “You are English,” he said, going by my accent. “So I’ll make you a proper cup of tea. It’s not many around here that know this, but there’s a special way of making tea that I learned in England. It’s the proper way.”
This made me smile. “Trying to get a decent cup of tea here in Geneva is maddening. The other day the waiter brought me a glass of nearly-hot water, accompanied some time later by a flavorless teabag, long exposed to air. And they call that tea around here.”
He laughed. “I know what you mean.”
Michel put the water on to boil, chatting the while, his front door open, letting in the scented air of the summer garden. He poured the boiling water into the teapot, without bothering to look at what he was doing, left it to warm, emptying the pot again when it was hot, and measured out fresh tea leaves: one teaspoon per person, and one for the pot. Then he poured the freshly boiling water over it.
“Your tea will be ready in exactly four minutes Ma’am,” he said with a grin. “And now tell me all about yourself.”
Springtime came. May was glorious. Michel took me over to the cupboard in the corner and opened a tin.
“Smell this,” he said, lifting the lid. “It’s genuine beeswax from the South of France. I’m going to take everything out of this room tomorrow, and polish the floor.”
“I could bring you a polisher,” I volunteered. “I know where I can borrow one for you.”
Michel looked at me disdainfully. “I don’t believe in machines,” he said fiercely. “Besides, it gives me something to do.”
One day I turned up out of the blue. The front room was shaded as usual. Michel was busy in the sunny kitchen, his glasses steamed up.
“Come in,” he said, “and enjoy some fresh pancakes with maple syrup. Friends from Canada send me a bottle of the genuine syrup every Christmas.”
We sat down together.
“Once I was traveling through northern Quebec,” he began, “and out there in the wilds was a cabin where a couple lived. They invited me in and offered me some bread with maple syrup and a glass of beer. ‘We tapped the sap ourselves,’ said the woman. Their shack was almost bare, save for a red cedar lute in one corner. The man picked up the instrument and pointed to the cracked soundboard. ‘No music now.’ Mute pain permeated the ensuing silence. ‘I’ll try to have your lute repaired,’ I said. ‘Take it,’ said the woman almost inaudibly, and her husband’s shoulders dropped. Finally I found an artisan to repair it. Two years later I took the lute back. You should have seen the joy in their faces!”
We slowly began getting to know each other. The smell of fresh beeswax permeated the cottage. “I love to get down on my hands and knees, and polish the floor myself. ”
But Michel never seemed to clean his glasses; they always looked smoky. “I can see you in that shaft of sunlight,” he said one day. “You’re wearing white. Besides, I know your voice.”
Then, as unexpectedly as he had come into my life, Michel was gone. The next time I visited, his cottage was up for sale.
“Is he dead?” I asked a neighbor.
“Oh no! Michel was turned out. The cottage had belonged to the landlord’s aunt. She died; he did not want to keep the property.”
“So he just turned Michel out?” I asked, aghast. “At the age of eighty-five?”
“Yes! And after he had lived there for fifteen years!”
“So how did Michel manage?”
“Manage?” she asked incredulously. “In just three days he had a new flat.”
“But it is so hard to find a flat in Geneva!”
“Michel has many friends, and a young woman found him the new flat. There is also an older friend, Ninette, who comes regularly. He told me they have known each other for over fifty years. She organized his move and did many trips by car herself. She will know where you can find him.”
I had met Ninette briefly, in another context, and she gave me his address.
Up an ugly, steep, concrete staircase: sixteen steps. I found Michel’s door open, as it always had been. Neighboring children filed in and out.
“I’ll have some grapes for you next time, Julie,” he called after one.
Fierce rage burned in me. Turned out at 85! Gone were the scented fields and the flowerbeds he himself had dug. Gone the peace of summer bees. Apartments now close together in a harsh, angular gray block. Concrete-amplified clamor.
“What happened, Michel?” I asked. He looked away through his misty glasses.
“Life!” he said, with a touch of bitterness. “But come to the balcony. Look, I brought my geraniums with me. Soon it will be too cold for them.” He lifted the Hessian sacking and brushed his hands over the plants. “They’ll be glorious again, next spring,” he said. He felt the individual stems. “Just look at this one,” he said. “A real beauty! Gave me double blossoms for six months.” Michel was a gardener to the very soul, Ninette told me, and had green fingers! He could make anything grow.
“You’ll find some fresh walnuts in the kitchen. Help yourself. Ninette brought them from her farm in France. She comes often and phones me every day.”
The two-roomed apartment looked clean and fresh. A fine elmwood sculpture stood in the entrance hall.
“You can touch it if you like,” he said. I ran my fingers over the warm, smooth grain and texture of this undulating, natural form. “I carved it myself.”
But Michel’s spirit burned less brightly here. And yet, for me, being with him was like sitting in the warmth of a campfire on a moonlit night, under a star-pierced blue-black vault.
Implacably the concrete environment closed in on him. But he did not let himself be caged.
“I still go out for my walk every day,” he said defiantly. “Nothing can stop me. I go whenever I feel like it, even if it rains. And I always go alone.”
But there were small signs of self-neglect. From time to time I bumped into his older friend, Ninette, usually as she or I were just leaving.
Each time I visited him he offered me something new.
“I had many old books once,” he began, “but I left them all in the attic.”
“Oh, that was in Canada. On our farm.”
He sank into a long silence, and gazed into the distance.
“I fell in love again,” he told me, “madly in love. We were both retired and bought a farm. Every day we were out together in the orchards picking apples, happy as children. Then one day she had to take a trip to settle some business.
“That night the phone rang: there had been a car crash; a man told me she was dead.
“Next morning I fled. Left everything behind me; never went back.”
There was a stunned silence. But implacably Michel forced himself back, to my presence.
“I taught in a boy’s boarding-school once,” he began with a smile. “ Sunday mornings were chaotic. The boys were rowdy, and the teachers dreaded it. We were all supposed to take a turn at preaching the sermon in Chapel on a Sunday! Just imagine it! Me preaching!” He paused.
“So how did you get out of it?” I asked.
“Get out of it? I just refused to get into it! I said I would take charge of the boys, on condition that no one ever mentioned a sermon or asked me to preach again!” He grinned.
“And how did you manage the boys?”
“They were not bad kids; they were just bored. I began reading them an adventure story. Any boy who caused a disturbance was soon turned out by those who wanted to listen. When their curiosity was at its peak, I’d close the book. By the third Sunday all the boys were quiet.”
“It’s easy to bore the pupils,” he said. “But I took the boys out in the middle of the night and had them measure the plants, to see whether they grew faster in the moonlight or in the sun. I never had any trouble with them.”
From time to time Michel would fall into a long silence, and then he would murmur, “C’est long! It goes on and on!” And the words would resound like a mournful refrain.
One day I found the front door open. Michel was rummaging in a drawer. “I’ve had a letter from my son,” he said. “It’s in this drawer, somewhere.”
“You have a son?”
“Oh yes, he is over forty now. He visits me once a year. I also had a wife once. Never asked for a divorce; just walked away when it was over!” Then he changed the subject.
“When I was little, we lived on a farm above Bonmont. It was situated under the Vieux Château, the ruins of an old castle at Saint-Cergue, destroyed during the Burgundian wars. From there one could see far over the surrounding area, right to the lake. It was idyllic.” (Today there is a well-signposted path (Ballade de Béatrix) through the forest, to the now overgrown ruins. On the way up posters tell the legend of Béatrix, as described in an ancient novel.) “And do you know,” he continued, “the story goes that a woman was found embedded in one of the castle walls.”
He looked at me with evident satisfaction as he remembered. “Being a child on that farm was like being raised in paradise. We had a lot of horses. I can still remember when I was three. I’d walk right between the horses’ legs and tickle their bellies. I don’t know how they put up with me. But not one ever kicked me.
“I love animals. When I was ten, I went to visit the elephants in Geneva. The Knie Circus would leave them out in the Parc des Eaux-Vives, then only a large enclosure. There were six elephants, and I wanted to be with them. There was no attendant, so I simply climbed over the fence.”
“What happened then?”
Michel flashed me his boyish grin.
“One of the elephants picked me up and put me on his back. He took me for a ride all around the enclosure, and then set me down where he had picked me up to start with.”
One day Michel talked about Ninette.
“I met her in Canada, when her husband was a lecturer at University. It’s thanks to her that my flat is so well organized. She takes care of everything. See that painting hanging above my bed?” (Mysterious green trees casting shade over a pond). “Ninette painted it. In Quebec, all three of us would go riding in the Boreal forest. The scenery was glorious.”
“Afterwards Michel would write poems,” Ninette told me later. “They were sublime. He was my painting and pottery teacher.”
On my next visit Michel got back to the subject of elephants.
“I was in Frankfurt one year, and a circus had come to town. So I walked over to the elephants. They looked unhappy and depressed. I leaned over the enclosure to the nearest one, and stroked his trunk. “You’re not from here,” I said, and as I spoke a quiver went through the group. The other elephants approached and brightened up. “So I was right! You speak French!” Elephants can also feel lost in a foreign country, you know.”
Then Michel sank into silence, broken only by that solitary refrain: “It goes on and on.”
I was on the Number 12 tram as it reached Plainpalais on the other side of town when I saw a familiar figure standing at the front door, planting his cane firmly on the top step. It was Michel, whom I had not seen for months.
“I’ll get off with you,” I said, shocked at the state he was in.
“I know your voice,” he said, without looking back. He took my arm and we got off.
“But what are you doing here, Michel?”
“I had to get out,” he growled. “I couldn’t stand it any longer. It was like being buried alive. I didn’t care where I went and just took the first tram.”
We entered a café and sat down.
“I’ve had enough,” he thundered. “It goes on and on and on!”
I sipped my coffee, silent, helpless, drawn into the tempest.
“I miss my two hedgehogs,” he complained. “I always left milk out for them. I loved living in that cottage. Early every morning a blackbird would come to tap at my window, and I’d feed it.”
Michel had not shaved. He looked shorter; his shoulders had sunk.
“Getting back upstairs after shopping is easy,” he said. “I just count the steps on the way up. But inside my flat I cannot tell whether I am heading for the front or the back door. It’s like living inside a large round clock. But I don’t know which way the hands are turning.”
Nor could Michel be sure whether it was day or night. At three one morning he walked out of his front door and fell down the jagged, concrete steps. Hours later a neighbor found him, bruised and bleeding, and blue with cold. He took Michel to hospital, and left him there.
“I sat and waited, but no one came. Too busy, they were,” he raged. “Much too busy for me! I waited for three hours. Then I had had enough. Took a taxi home, washed, and went to bed. Long ago I had a car accident in Canada. When I came round I was in a hospital. Well, I soon found my clothes and escaped. You won’t catch me in a hospital again!”
More often now, Michel would repeat: “It just goes on and on and on!”
And the silence that followed would engulf us both in its night.
When Michel could no longer walk about freely, Ninette hired a young Indian woman, Sunita, to live in. Her long black hair, braided in a single plait down her back, reached to her waist. Fresh as a fresh young olive tree, and radiant in her orange-red silk sari, she took care of Michel with gentleness and love.
One day I felt a sudden urge to visit. Ninette was there, and very stressed. It was Sunita’s day off. Michel could not be left alone.
“Could you stay here for a couple of hours?”
It was shortly after his 90th birthday. I read him an African folk tale: Kumongé, the magic tree. Suddenly he drew himself up in bed and said, “I lived in Africa once.” And he continued the tale in a deep, sonorous voice, in some African tongue unknown to me, rhythmically, powerfully, as might a young warrior.
A few days later Michel died peacefully, in his own home.
Later it was Ninette who told me:
“Michel’s eyesight had begun to deteriorate in Canada. That is why he returned to Geneva. But he had one good eye. Later this eye, too, had to be operated. We took him to the best eye surgeon. The operation partially restored his sight for a while. But he had glaucoma. Then that eye also gave way.”
“Did you find it difficult to look after him in those last months?” I asked.
“Oh no! It made me feel brilliantly alive.” Ca m’a fait vivre!
Michel was celebrated in St. George’s Chapel in Geneva, with lilies and colored wreaths. He drew many people. Some huddled in front, others straggled, here and there. Beautiful young Sunita sat alone, at the back. The University Choir sang. Mozart’s Requiem filled the chapel. And many mourned Michel.
Twelve years have passed. Ninette is now eighty. Her face lights up and her voice glows as she reminisces.
“You mean he never told you?” she exclaimed. “Michel had an amazing life. All the most important people were in touch with him, and he corresponded with men of fame. But he kept no records; and left no record. He was like that!”
“He was a wonderful person, a free spirit.” Her husband, also eighty, nods in agreement. “Michel despaired when he found himself going blind. He loved life passionately, and clung to it, could not let go. When he was eighty, he still insisted on climbing up the cherry tree on my farm to pick the cherries. He was interested in everything—even the people in the street. Generosity itself, he gave away everything. His curiosity was boundless. They lived near the border. So, on his way back from school, he would go to the inn to watch the smugglers who came for a glass of hot wine. The little inn would be crowded. But there was room on the top landing, and they let him stand there to watch. “There were always such beautiful women,” he had remarked.”
As Ninette’s memory sharpened, she continued enthusiastically, “You know, when he was a child, a raven would accompany him to the village school every day. This raven did not like his father, and when he was not looking, it would quickly unpick his shoe laces.
“Michel loved to go down to the lakeside and explore; he loved to hide and watch the otters.
“When he had completed his studies he taught in Neuchâtel for a while. Then later he came to Geneva.
“His mother was French and Michel later married a French woman. For a wedding present he received an extraordinary cat. They slaughtered a pig, made le boudin (black pudding) and invited the neighbors to the festivities. But his in-laws wanted the cat out of the way, and locked it in the cellar for three days. Excluded thus, and thoroughly offended, the emaciated cat refused to touch the offered meat from the wedding feast, once it was finally let out.”
The pieces of the enigma were coming together. I began to perceive Michel’s life more as a whole.
“In Canada Michel taught as a private tutor in one of the colleges. In the holidays he would take off to the Great North. He would hunt and fish, and light a campfire with silver birch wood. He would live outdoors as often as he could. But his blindness enraged him, turned him into “un grand revolté.”
“And yet he rarely showed that side of himself. As a friend, he was a tower of strength.”
Sophia Tellen is a freelance writer, Swiss by marriage, and lives in Geneva. She has been rewriting this story for twelve years, trying to find the words that would do justice to this friend.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.