In an earlier incarnation, I was an avid bicycle tourist. I completed my longest tour by far in the early 90s, passing through 24 countries in Europe and Asia. At one point, I was riding north up the Rhone Valley in France and I detoured east to visit Geneva at the westernmost point of Switzerland. This was the only part of Switzerland I got to see. Crossing the country at this point is like running over a dog’s tail. It is only 15 km from north to south.
It was spring and the weather was warm and sunny. I decided to rest for a day to explore the city. In spite of its huge reputation for international conventions and a setting for James Bond movies, there isn’t much to see in Geneva. It is a small city, not much larger than Victoria. It nestled in a pleasant valley between modest mountains at the western end of Lac Leman, but aside from a few historic charms and pretty streetscapes, the city itself is not particularly memorable.
Except for the Jet d’Eau, that is. Like many cities wanting to be notoriety for a special attraction, Geneva decided to create one – the Jet d’Eau. It’s a fountain in the centre of the city’s quaint harbour, a single powerful jet of water that shoots ridiculously high – 460 feet, or 140 metres – many times higher than the city’s tallest buildings. Like made-for-tourists attractions contrived by other cities, I was turned off by its false purpose that bore no commonality with the city it was supposed to represent. I chose instead to wander aimlessly through the cities orderly streets, but as I soon learned, there wasn’t much to see and most of the roads seemed to lead back to the harbour.
The broad tree-lined lakeside promenade with its accompanying marinas is one of the city’s nicest features. It wraps around all three sides of the U-shaped harbour. At first I looked only at the immediate beauty of the yachts, the flower baskets and the other pedestrians strolling along its length, but as I walked along I felt tethered to the Jet d’Eau, which was always the same distance from the promenade. It began to fascinate me as I saw it from different sides. I paused when the wind blew its fine spray my way, a cautioning chill on a warm day.
When I reached the end of the promenade I rested and watched the fountain. I couldn’t stop staring up at it. I tried to understand the thinking behind why it was put there. It seemed to have no useful purpose except to draw the eye away from other attractions. I watched the sailboats carefully negotiate their way around it but the breeze was strong and changeable. I heard sailors laugh with delight when they caught the spray from the cascade on their faces.
As I sat there contemplating it I began to see it was telling me a story, perhaps the story of my present adventure or perhaps of my life itself. The jet starts off with a clear and forceful purpose, determined and resolute, adhering to its form with great discipline for an amazing distance. It is hard not to be enraptured by the height it achieves. I have never seen a fountain anywhere near as high. Wasn’t this what I was trying to do by cycling from country to country for a year, to prove to others and myself that I could go farther than anyone would think possible? It was the depiction a young man charging hard to his zenith, an exceptional man with vision who would go farther than others before him.
But the lesson it was teaching me wasn’t in the power, cohesion or height of the spout. It was a demonstration that any contrived purpose, no matter how focused and forceful, is futile in the end. Gravity always wins. In my case, I could and still would go much further – this was only my fifth country – but at some point I would tire, run out of money or vision and need to return home, from whence I came, just as the fountain was doing.
I was 37 at this point. Not only would I reach a zenith of some point on this trip, but I was also reaching a zenith in my life. I would never again do anything as big as this, at least not physically. I realized that then, months before I detected my first symptoms of muscular dystrophy and before developing diabetes and leukemia. But even if I hadn’t contracted these diseases, the outcome would be the same. There is no choice. We all return to Ground Zero.
At that age, I had a deep seated fear of reaching my zenith, of losing my purpose and all I had gained. There I accepted with a profound sadness that everything will shrink back to a meaningless nothing. It is a sadness I now know and have become used to, but which I will continue to process until I let go of life itself.
Jet d’Eau had something to say about this too. The fountain’s return to the lake after its zenith looks nothing like the first half of its journey. It no longer powers its way through the air without negotiation. Relinquishing any illusions of purpose, it fragments into spray and drifts where the wind dictates. It feathers out into a lovely plume resembling Pampas grass as it descends in disarray. The two halves of the arc have opposite personalities: the eternal metaphor of Ying and Yang, or of the Oak King and the Holly King. The upward force of the fountain is intimidating while the downward return is beautiful. There is beauty in acceptance, in surrender, in letting go. I am half way back to the lake by now. Perhaps my final moment will land as a refreshing spray on a sailor’s face.