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Personal Topographies

 

So i'm sitting here at the airport getting ready to make what is probably my final trip to Zurich, a city that for many years held a very special place in my heart. The first time I ever visited, I was on my way to Berlin for a summer term of school. I wasn't a very seasoned traveller then but my adopted mom had arranged for me to spend a day in Zurich before hitting Germany. She wanted me to have a Swiss moment, to experience a place for however brief a time that had so defined her. I was so nervous! For some reason, I found Zurich immensely intimidating.

 

Over the years, I traveled there again and again with my mom, usually at least twice a year. We'd always stay at the same hotel and go to the same places and it became a tradition of sorts for us. The first time I had to go (on business) four months after she died it  nearly broke my heart; and when the entire staff of the hotel, a hotel my mom had been staying at several times a year for over thirty years, lined up in a receiving line as I was having breakfast and came over one by one to shake my hand and express their condolences on the loss of my mother, I almost fell apart. But one does not cry in public in Zurich, not the elegant, old-world Zurich to which my mom had introduced me. It simply isn't done. So I was gracious and swallowed my pain.

 

Now, visiting is not so painful. In fact, it's not even bittersweet. i'm graced almost with a sense of nostalgia when I walk around this city's streets. I still go to the same shops my mom introduced me to, see the same people, eat at the same restaurants (if y'all are going to Zurich, i can hook you up! there are some wonderful restaurants including one that has the best potato salad in Europe---and I don't even *like* potato salad except here).

 

Because I doubt I'll have cause to return any time soon, I made sure to come prepared to get a bit of soil…part of my biological family as well as my adopted family is Swiss and I can put that soil on my ancestor shrine. Or i can put it on my shrine to the elemental power of earth. I doubt i'll have another chance. Once, years ago, i visited my ancestral town of Bubendorf--known for its production of Kirsch. It's about an hour from Zurich and I had the oddest experience that the forest and rocks, streams and gullies recognized me. I've talked about ancestral land before but to have the sense that the land recognizes the blood line was powerfully surreal. For what it's worth, I get the same experience when I travel south and hit certain parts of PA--the land there recognizes my line. Part of my soul can relax.  I would like to visit Bubendorf again but won't on this trip. I't's little more than a manor house and surrounding farmland and I would have to take a car and driver and it would remind me too greatly of having done exactly that pilgrimage years ago with my mom. I can honor that place anyway and the ancestors who lived and died there without the bitter sweet pain of a return.

 

So now i'm sitting in an airport lounge (they have free wifi yay!) and contemplating the strange twists and turns my life has taken. I have been so terribly blessed. It awes me sometimes. It awes and humbles me all the time. Thank you, oh my Gods and spirits for taking such good care of this ragged and jagged soul.

 

 

*****

 

So it's Thanksgiving Day and a I arrived, after quite a few delays at the airport, safely in Zurich. I breathed a sigh of relief as I set foot on Swiss soil. This is the land of my mothers. It is the land of my mothers' mothers' mothers. In the little time I have spent here over the past decade, I have lived an age. Zurich, though not  my mother's canton, nourishes me on fragments and fleeting wisps of her memory.  i enter the hotel and they greet me by name, wishing me a warm 'welcome home.' It is in a way, as much a home as any of Gangleri's get is likely to find.

 

There is magic in the land and the way it remembers the passage of a soul. There is magic in those ephemeral roots we set, the leavings of time and place and experiences well met under the aegis of foreign skies. They're not so foreign. This soil held the bones of my dead and as any elemental worker will tell you, one elemental spirit is connected to all the others that have ever been or will ever be. My grandmothers and grandfathers breathed their last breath here and that breath nourishes me. A mystery I think that I'm only coming to understand.

 

I just saw a picture on Facebook, a gorgeous stream flowing between purple covered cliffs: fairy pools at the Island of Skye the caption said. I would like to go there one day but then I thought: what does it matter. I have been there through the meanderings of my ancestors. I know that place as surely as if i walked there myself. Visiting would be but a means of gentle reacquaintance. Still, such travels do feed the soul. They have the potential to remind us who who we are, who we come from, and give us yet another chance to find the strength and nourishment to weave all those disparate threads together in the work we do now, today.  I need to wash the stink of the plane off and sleep. I am weary from the journey.

 

*****

 

How odd the places we bring our Gods. How graciously They walk with us on sundry shores.

 

***

 

So I went shopping today--not much but there are a few places my mom and I would always go here and for once, I allowed sentiment to rule my choices. i was shocked and saddened to find the one shop that was a touchstone on my visits here -- a little old fashioned shop that sold handkerchiefs and table linens, all hand embroidered with a skill that is slowly being lost as the elderly female artists die--was having its going out of business sale, having lost its lease after 92 years. I found myself glad that this would likely be my last visit to Zurich. I remember my mom not infrequently bemoaning how beloved places had changed since she was a child. It pained her, and left her feeling like a person out of time, more isolated and rootless than our culture already seeks to make us. I understand that now. It's never the big things that evoke that either. It's the slow wearing away of what was known, what was comfortable, visual touchstones that come to define the topography of time and place for us. i miss the Zurich I knew with her. It's still here…it recognizes me this city spirit with roots that go back to my Alemmannic ancestors. I taste them and their age in the air and soil, see vestiges of their spirits here and there. The water spirits giggle at me. But the city subtly shifts as all cities do and it different from that time and place wherein i rooted my knowledge of its blessings in the company of my mother.  i understand more fully how she must have felt, seeing her beloved world,all the places that defined her passage in this life, slipping away like sand in the break of a furiously unyielding wave.

 

Still, Zurich has its charms. The city spirit here is like the mountains that can be seen in the distance, mountains that ward and guard the city imparting something of their strength and endurance to the people here. This is a fine, fine place. Zurich's blessings are in my skin. He…and i see the spirit of this place as a he…has insinuated himself into the hard-knit places of my soul-memory, into the topography of me. I'm glad for that. His is a strength that sustains.

 

 

****

 

I'll tell you a secret. I'm sitting here in the hotel room smoking clove cigarettes, which one is still able to buy here, enjoying the luxury of not having to huddle wrapped up in the cold to get my nicotine fix. I rarely smoke anymore outside of ancestor rituals but this whole visit is an ancestor rite of sorts, so I am allowing myself the indulgence.

 

Years ago, my mom took me on a whirlwind tour of Switzerland. We went to all the places that she loved including a little town in the French speaking part of the country called Glion. She told me as a small, lonely child her nurse would take her on walks when she visited here with her family and every day she would beg to go past what to her was a fairyland: on a bit of soil and green, down one side street, someone had set up a small …i don't know what to call it. it wasn't a garden. It was a small 'fairy village': little houses, and pretty stone sculptures and small pools. It sat atop a crumbling retaining wall. It was a child's dream. Being a shaman, I took her hand and led her right to this place, in a city in which I had never been down winding streets on which I'd never walked, in the shelter of mountains whose names I did not know to a place whose exact location she had forgotten. I went right to it and she nearly wept, eyes filling with the delight of a child as she saw that magic place again after almost sixty years. The vaettir remembered her too and though the little houses were in disrepair, some crumbling, the place still stood and still held a certain child's magic. These earth spirits had been her friends when she was small. It was a good reunion.

 

****

 

There is that in me that will endure as long as the mountains stand.  There is that in me that i have rooted in the wellspring of my ancestors, who stand in the shade of those mountains and guard my back as their ancestors guard them. There is that in me that will never yield, never break, never  bow to any threat. When the mountains in this, my mother's homeland bow their heads to trifles, I'll think about it.

 

****

 

The holiday lights went on today. It's like a fairy land outside at night. They're not brazen or obnoxious but delicate and tasteful and the curtains of lights adoring the streets and passageways between buildings seem to transform the city at night into an enchanted place. The child in me approves and the moon, blurred above wrapped in clouds looks on….a golden smudge.

 

****

 

My business here is concluded and I'm getting ready to head home. Turns out it won't be my last visit here as I had initially thought, though the frequency of my comings and goings to Zurich will be greatly diminished. Still, this particular trip feels like a Rubicon of sorts, one that I've just sailed less than gaily across. I'm not sure why, save that i feel as though I am about to become another person again, to slough off old skin and emerge hardly recognizable within my own mind. It's happened before.It's almost as though I store up experiences until a tipping point is reached and then I allow myself to be moved by them. I do my transformations all at once. It's easier that way, like ripping a bandaid off a wound rather than picking at it. I've a bit of shopping to do: Jelmoli department store, the local english bookstore, (I'm studiously avoiding the cashmere shop since I don't want to have to check luggage and don't need any new clothing anyway). Tonight I go to dinner with good friends of my mom and tomorrow morning it's back home, wherever that might be.

 

I shouldn't say that. I'm no longer an exile in my own life, a stranger to living and all the grace notes midgard brings. My mom saw to that. There is a difference between having a home and feeling at home in places. Sometimes love defines that border, as cliche as that might sound. It was true for me.  I have a home that is my sanctuary. I feel at home many other places. It is not the places I travel that seem so alien to me, it is the time, he customs, the mores. It is a world so separated from its ancestral traditions, so disconnected, so unhealthy that it is very hard for anyone to find him or herself therein. I know my roots and that is all that matters. One of those roots runs deeply, oh so deeply, under very ancient, stubborn mountains, that ring with the song of a dozen dialects.

 

I am grateful to the Gods and ancestors for all that I have been given, for all the people who have come into my life and come to be called friends. I am grateful that You have taken me in hand. I am grateful; as i sit here listening to what I suspect are churchbells ringing the hour here in Zurich, ensconced in my smoke-scented hotel room, awaiting the arrival of friends, I am indeed very, very grateful.

 

i think I will honor Zurich in my work, as I do other land and mountain spirits. He has given me much and those places that shape the warp and weft of our memories are important. May this city spirit be hailed. May he be honored. May I never forget what i've been given.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 Galina Krasskova is a Heathen priest, author, and Northern Tradition shaman. She holds a Masters degree in Religious Studies and is currently working toward a PhD in Classics. Galina is the author of several books including “Essays in Modern Heathenry” and “Skalded Apples: A Devotional Anthology to Idunna and Bragi.”
(Photo by Hudson Valley photographer Mary Ann Glass.)

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