If you haven’t read yet chapter 1 – a long day by train, you can start there
The classroom is dim and the attention of most students is directed toward the white plastified canvas where the professor is projecting his slides. Today’s lecture is introducing ecological engineering, and the teacher is to later discuss the semester project, as well as the afternoon site visit linked with that project.
Enzo is trying to keep his focus on the lecture, which he earnestly finds interesting. Funnily, the slides are written in French, but the professor is presenting them in English with a strange Germanic accent, while most students prefer to intervene in French. A good example of EPFL’s openness on the world, the administration would say. At the welcome day, they were proudly announcing that more than half of its students are foreigners. It changes Enzo from Palermo where it was a hard task to find a non-Sicilian.
The call of sirens of this beautiful day is too strong though. It is one of those rare and enchanted mornings of the beginning of fall. There is just the right amount of clouds and wind for the day to be pleasantly sunny, and for nature to glitter with a thousand colors’ shades that are otherwise invisible at most times. Elements seem to have acquired a third dimension. The grass is not anymore green, but a blend of dozens of colors, running through all the tints of green, mixed with yellow, brown and gold. The slinking shadows of racing birds mingle with that of trees and bushes, over a thin carpet of seasoned leaves. A delight for the eyes, a bliss and a challenge for the painter.
From the large windows close to which he is sitting, Enzo can see the northern part of campus, a series of cubic buildings made of concrete and steel mixed with greenery at the foreground. A bit farther, beyond the above-the-ground metro line, there is the brand new convention center capped with a silvery diamond, standing close to the variegated buildings of his residence. Farther, a hill rises carrying the little village of Ecublens with its red-tiled low houses and its small church. Around, there is a combination of green, yellow and bare fields, some remaining patches of forests, with some large and shapeless concrete buildings disseminated here and there, overshadowing isolated picturesque cottages. It is not the countryside, nor the city. It is the child of urban sprawl. One of his teacher called it the Zwischenstadt, an unpronounceable German word for the arch enemy of urbanists and environmentalists.
If you have troubles visualizing the mechanisms of urban sprawl, imagine the city to be an octopus, with all its moving tentacles. The octopus ejects clouds of ink, splattering the entire surrounding with large irregular stains and thick trailing lines. With the difference that in practice, ink is nothing else but concrete and asphalt, and it leaves long scars and indelible marks across the territory, fragmenting it in little slices.
“Can any of you say what is the first cause of loss in biodiversity in the world?” the teacher asks, interrupting Enzo’s reflections about the urban sprawl.
“No it’s not climate change… nor hunting…”
At that point, Enzo hesitantly raises his hand to speak. “The fragmentation of the territory in small pieces?”
“Excellent!” exclaims the teacher. “It’s called ecological fragmentation.”
The entire classroom turns to the back, surprised to hear an unusual voice answering correctly a relatively complex question. Most students already know each other for they did their bachelor together in EPFL. Enzo shrugs and looks away from the window, unsteady to be at the center of his classmates’ attention.
“And its effects are devastating in several ways. It weakens the biological population in each patch, as most species cannot move from one patch to another, decreasing the genetic diversity inside species, leading to the extinction of the most fragile ones, which subsequently results in a cascade of extinctions.
“Ecological fragmentation also kills in a different way. Roads and highways kill billions of tadpole every year, and now many species of amphibians (such as frogs) are endangered…” the teacher pursues his explanations, interrupted several times by the questions of students.
Swiss students never seem to hesitate before asking questions, and they generally have a very eager attitude toward learning. It’s surprising to notice that only a small number of them is leaning forward in unnatural positions, engrossed in their electronic devices. Or maybe is it because they are already graduate students who are supposedly more mature and interested by what they are doing?
It is a special day for Enzo, not only for the splendid weather and the site visit they will have in the afternoon, but also because he is to have lunch with Isabelle. This is the chief reason for which he is simultaneously burning with excitement and shivering with anxiety. It is only the second time ever he is to spend a substantial amount of time, alone, with a girl he finds quite attractive. And his previous experience with Azzurra is certainly not here to reassure him.
They exchanged several text messages in the two weeks following the welcome party. Enzo braced himself to propose having a drink or a lunch, and Isabelle opted for the lunch on a day in which she would come to UNIL’s campus, more convenient for meeting up. The school of theater is in the city center, but she is taking extra courses at UNIL.
Thereby, despite being in one of his favorite classes, Enzo nervously watches the clock at the right bottom of the teacher’s slides, split between impatience and fear. He has to remind himself of breathing deeply to appear reasonably quiet, not listening much of the teacher’s talks since his earlier clever reply, occasionally adding up to his list a topic of conversation he thinks of, as well as some reserve questions to ask her. The worst would be letting awkward silences shroud their encounter. Even though she does not seem that kind of girl to be short of ideas to talk about…
“Students, this is what we will be doing this afternoon in our site visit to the Venoge river. You will be looking at the fields, at the forest, at the river and at the lake. You will list all the vegetal and animal species you can find in the different types of ecosystems. You will assess the ecological value of this place, and you will consider all the threats looming on it. Your final aim will be to design a strategy for enhancing the ecological value of the site. For that you will split in groups of three or four, for the rest of the semester. Each group will be responsible for another type of area. Now you can go on your well-deserved lunch breaks! Don’t forget to be back at 3 pm sharp, and we’ll meet in front of the building’s entrance.”
The teacher tilts his laptop, turns off the lights, going out the room looking as eager as his students to be finished.
Enzo packs away his copybook, rushing down through the somber corridors and stairs, light as a grass blade in the wind, heading to the place where he has left his bike. Actually, there is no reason to hurry actually, as his appointment is in fifty minutes. Ten minutes are largely enough to get to UNIL’s campus by bike. He decides to take the longest and prettiest path, along the lake.
Nature is marvelous in this last day of September, and Enzo has a hard time not seeing it as a good omen for the test that awaits him. Flowers are the only missing element for it to be called Spring.
Several shades of pale blues dance on the surface of the lake. Ducks and swans cheerfully patrol. The hills and mountains on the opposite shore, which are partly in France, bear a quantity of details that are usually invisible for the observer on this side of the shore. Narrow fields and tiny villages clinging over their flanks, a succession of high mounts and deep valleys, all stripped from the slightest thread of haze. An explosion of colors, when these mountains usually appear of a uniform grey blue. The closest are green and grey, brown and yellow, a mixture of light and shadow, while the most distant are of a blend of mauve, pale violet and blue. The highest summits are already white-crowned with snow.
Enzo feels the urge to capture the solemnity of this beauty in a watercolor painting, task he would have assuredly undertaken if he had but a bit more time.
Quietly riding his newfound love on the little earth path meandering through a shadowy forest along the shores of the lake, he passes below the universities sports’ center. He stops and dismounts from his bicycle along a wide and long beach of white sand, screened from the path by a densely fitted hedge of trees and shrubs, and scattered pieces of wood and mossy trunks. A small river dies in the lake at the extremity of the beach. After some reflection, Enzo recognizes it for the same river that flows under his window in Atrium.
He lies down on the sand right beside the lake, closing his eyes, breathing deeply and carefully listening to nature, trying to make emptiness through his mind.
Silence is soon populated by bird singing and the lapping of wavelets, replying to each other. A gentle breeze tickles his face, echoed by a distant rustling of leaves. Cries of gulls draw nearer. Than farther. A boat fills the lake with the unmistakable sound of its horn. A heavy flutter sends water splashing. As the large bird painfully takes off, his wings make a mechanical noise similar to that of a small airplane.
Enzo reopens his eyes, reassured by the sweet and sharp melody of nature, and blinded by the light. Not having a mother of his own, he has grown up much closer to nature. It has a tranquilizing and healing power over him, in addition of being a constant source of inspiration for his reflexions and his art.
He sits down, looking around himself, and notices a piece of wood randomly shaped and polished by the lake. He grabs it, and distractedly runs his palm along its smooth surface. It reminds him of the finest woodworker he knows. His father. He can do incredible things with his little scalpels. Usually not for the family’s benefit, as he has to sell the pieces he produces, chairs, tables and drawers, to complement the revenues they earn from the land. However, before Enzo’s birth, Domenico had carved out a whole menagerie in wood. Sheeps and horses and giraffes and tigers and birds, with which the kids could play. He stopped making toys after Anna’s death…
It brings back one of his earliest memory. He was four or five years old, and after getting hooked up by Nonna’s stories, he had begged his father to carve him a wooden donkey, an animal that was lacking to the menagerie. Most of her stories had donkeys and mules, which carried the humble heroes across the plains and the stony hills of Sicily, kilometers and kilometers under a burning sun, without the slightest complaint. Domenico had eventually yielded, fabricating for him a small donkey, having the bright idea of adding two straw chests from both sides of the saddle. It became the favorite toy of his infancy, spending countless hours sitting in the cleft of a rock, or under the oak tree in front of the porch of their stone house, imaginarily traveling the world on the back of his small wooden donkey, living again scenes and adventures from the stories that his grandmother had told him. He even took it to Catania, when he was sent to that boarding school… He loved the odor of its wood, finding it reassuring and comforting; it smelt of his father, of Enna’ s dry countryside, of his grandmother’s tales, of all the things he liked.
Enzo makes a mental note to write to his sister soon enough, as he had promised to regularly give of his news.
He abruptly gets up, realizing that not much time is left before his meeting with Isabelle.
He takes the piece of wood, and puts it at random in the rear basket of his bicycle. There is poetry hiding in it. A small tree grows up along a turbulent river, getting taller and taller in its endless tentative of catching a little more of the nourishing light of the sun, sheltering birds and squirrels in its shadows, gracefully swinging in the wind. And someday, one of its bough is broken by a squall, ending up in the river. It dries up and gets stronger and smoother, polished by a strong current, the roll of waves and waterfalls and the harsh embrace with rocks and pebbles at its bottom. Lucky enough to travel across the lake, until it is saved by the same wind that had almost caused its loss, running aground on a sandy beach, and being picked the son of a carpenter who knows the secret language of the wood. What will be its final destiny? Will it have a second life, even more glorious than the first? Only time combined with the clumsy hands of his new owner will tell.
After an ascent through a long shady alley, Enzo rides along a field of corn at maturity, in front of UNIL’s main library which students call La Banane because of its shape. He carefully locks his bicycle, which he has been growing fond of, as if it were metallic donkey, the elder brother of the small wooden one, to carry him through all his Swiss escapades. Riding a bicycle allows you to develop a much deeper relationship with the land respect to using public transportation or driving a car, as you get to know every acclivity, every curve, and every narrow alley. You can also stop at your leisure every time you see an interesting place you would like to explore, an old picturesque house, an unknown tree, the bloom of a flower, or an intriguing store.
Enzo takes a deep breath, and slowly walks to the outdoor cafeteria. There is no trace of Isabelle yet, and he chooses a table and sits down under the shining sun, with a wide view on the field of corn, the sports center, the lake and the mountains. The air is warm but not too warm, as there is a steady breeze bringing some freshness. Without wind, the view would not have been so clear.
He had the occasion to visit all these places in the previous week, after finding out that he could take up to thirty books from UNIL’s library for free. A dream come true. He had immediately jumped on the chance, surprised about the high number of books written in Italian. He is also borrowing books in French for it is the occasion to discover other literary cultures, while polishing his French.
Waiting for Isabelle swells his nervosity, and his hands start fidgeting alone. He looks for a position in which to put his arms to rest, while keeping his composure. He tries to rehearse the topics of conversations he wrote down on his copybook earlier, but his focus is somewhere else.
She’s finally rushing toward the table, sunglasses on her head, sustaining his gaze and smiling broadly. “Sorry, sorry. The teacher wasn’t letting us go. Hope I did not make you wait for too long!” They exchange the three kisses, and her cheeks are sweet and soft against his dry sun-weathered face.
“Not at all, don’t worry. It’s a delightful day to be outdoors.”
“Yea, we’re lucky!” she exclaims. “Let’s get our lunches from inside.”
“I’ve brought something with me,” Enzo says. She raises an eyebrow. “Sorry, I should have told you beforehand. I’m trying to save a bit of money…” he explains.
“Okay, nevermind. I’ll be right back then.” She puts down her shoulder bag.
Few minutes later, she returns with a tray loaded with rice, grilled meat and vegetables and an apple. Enzo draws out of his backpack a pasta salad in a plastic box. All his anxiety has vanished by now, feeling oddly quiet.
“So, tell me, how is the beginning of the semester going? Have you been to many other parties?” she asks.
“It’s going better than expected, most of my courses are interesting. I’m also getting better settled here. I got a bike… and started to take some books from your library,” Enzo smiles, pointing to the nearby building.
“Oh that’s really cool. Rather peculiar for an engineer,” she mumbles, taking a spoonful of rice and veggies.
He purposely avoids replying to the question about parties. “What about you? How is theater?”
“I’m loving it! My new classmates are fantastic, and it’s really a lot of fun being around them. The atmosphere is great. We spend hours doing improvisation games to better know each others. We go watch plays together at night. The only disadvantage respect to Paris is that much less is ongoing in town here. I don’t know how it is in Sicily, but in Paris we have plenty to choose every evening, between plays and exhibitions and concerts… I’m missing that.”
Enzo nods. “I come from a small village in the Sicilian countryside where there is almost nothing going on. There are some popular festivals, coinciding with religious celebrations or with the agrarian calendar, like after the harvest. But we have a village spirit, with people knowing each other, and evening gatherings in fields during summer… I later lived in Palermo. It is quite a large city, streets are always bustling with people and activity, and there were many kinds of cultural things… And the city is very much alive in the evenings compared with Lausanne.”
“I’d really like to visit Sicily. It’s one of the few places in Italy I’ve not been to yet. Would you show me around next summer?”
“Of course, if I’m there. It’s a place that can be… sweet and… bitter at the same time, like almonds,” Enzo slowly says. “People either love it or hate it.”
“Do you love it or hate it?” she laughs.
“Hmm… I have not figured out yet… Where have you been to Italy?”
“You should rather ask me what I have not seen!”
He chuckles. “Then which is your favorite place in Italy?”
“I absolutely fell in love with Venice. I’ve been there during the carnaval. I enjoyed Verona and Rome a great deal. We went there with my besties last spring, and it was amazing.”
Enzo nods. She knows Italy much better than I do, he realizes with a bit of shame. He takes a couple of mouthfuls from his almost untouched pasta salad, without paying the slightest attention to the flavor of what he is eating. He would be incapable of saying what is in his salad if he were blindfolded, so intense is his focusing on the conversation, which has been flowing rather smoothly. “So what do you like doing in life apart of theater?” he asks.
“Oh, lots of different things. I love traveling to other countries. I’ve set foot on almost every continent. Have you heard of couchsurfing?”
“Not really…” he hesitates. Why don’t I know anything?
“Basically, it’s a website where you can find people ready to host you in the places where you travel. Without paying. It’s kind of a cultural exchange. They show you the place around. You tell them about your country, you cook them some food, and so on. It’s much more interesting to travel this way because you can appreciate better the local culture…” She interrupts her explanations to chew a bite.
Her chestnut hair looks absolutely lovely in the sun, and Enzo wonders whether to pay her a compliment. After all, the seduction websites he reads agree on warning the apprentice seducer on not making a good use of compliments and physical contact. If you don’t show a woman your interest in clear ways, you will slowly and irremediably slip into the friendzone, which is the nightmare of any respectable seducer. And you will go around crying that women are all bitches.
Isabelle carries on with her high-pitched voice. It’s only today that Enzo has noticed how much her voice and expression can be theatrical, assuming a wide span of different tones in a short time. “So you get to see beyond the typical touristic places with couchsurfing. I usually travel with my two besties, and we’ve had amazing experiences…Things that you would have never dared doing alone!”
She tells the stories of some of her most fantastic trips. Going through the slums of Rio de Janeiro and performing on a small shabby square with a local troupe of street theater. Discovering the temples of Kathmandu with a Nepalese history student. Exploring the mosques and hammams of Damascus, which European greenhorns would usually find closed on their path.
“I didn’t have the chance to travel much. I come from a… quite modest family. It was the first time I went outside of Italy when I came to Lausanne,” confesses Enzo.
Isabelle looks startled. “Are you joking?”
“No, no, unfortunately not…”
“Ah, I see. It must have be pretty boring not being able to travel the world. I would have gone crazy! But you Italians are lucky because you already have many amazing places to see in your country.”
“Right.” If she knows I never moved out of Sicily, he mentally shudders. My world has been bounded by Catania and Palermo for twenty years…
There is a small gap in the conversation, as both are finishing their meals. Thoughts about how to make her a physical compliment are running in the back of his mind, remembering what he read. The game of seduction has several stages, and you cannot jump from one stage to another whenever you like. There is a tempo to respect, a strategy to follow. Platonic conversation comes at first. Finding common interests, establishing confidence, building comfort. At the second stage you have to compliment her about her looks or her intellects and make some degree of physical contact, but nothing too sexually explicit. The game heats up in the third stage, preparing for the ground kissing and more… If you stay too long at stage one or two, you are doomed to fail. Doomed to fail…
“How beautiful a view we have from here,” Isabelle says. “It changes from big cities!”
“It’s wonderful.” He looks toward her, determined to utter a compliment about how nice her hair looks. However, as soon as he meets her deep blue eyes, he feels the icy touch of a sharp blade on his naked skin. His determination falters. To break the awkwardness of an unnaturally long eye contact, his mouth mutters something completely different. “So… what are your other interests?”
She has a passion for dancing and gives lessons of salsa. She tried out many different dancing styles, and sometimes her skills come to use on the stage. She also loves ice-skating that she practices twice a week.
“I enjoy very much reading and watching movies. And plays, of course. What about you?” she asks.
“I’ve grown up in the middle of the countryside, and I came to like nature very much. That’s another reason for which I’ve chosen environmental engineering. My passion is…” Enzo cuts his sentence in the middle, noticing that Isabelle is looking above his head, smiling and waving her hand.
“Hellooo Isabelle! How are ya doin’?” says a tall blond bearded guy in English, with something like an American or an Australian accent. She stands on her feet and he hugs her closely.
“It’s been a full week we don’t see you!” she replies. “Enzo, Andrew!” They shake hands. “Come enjoy the sun with us!”
Andrew readily accepts. He takes a plastic chair from an empty nearby table, and joins them. “I skipped few days as we were camping in the mountains and backpacking with the guys. ‘t was awesome!”
“Oh man! I so want to do something like that. You should tell me about it next time you go!” she exclaims. Her accent in English is surprisingly good. “So tell me, how has been going your play project? Are you still looking for actors?”
“Oooh! Let me tell you the whole story! You won’t believe what happened…”
Andrew is the fly in the ointment, throwing a black shadow on what could have been a perfect day. He easily monopolizes the conversation, with his fast flowing Australian English, and Isabelle’s face glows as she listens to his stories.
Andrew’s talking and Isabelle excited replies gradually suck away Enzo’s newfound confidence with her. The rare times he participates in the conversation is when they explicitly ask him questions, but he does not say much, feeling uninteresting and awkward. It’s very frustrating but he can’t help it; he’s looking with growing irritation at the fields, the lake and the mountains, which he found marvelous but half an hour ago. They seem to be mocking him after having played a funny trick. But at the same time, their beauty is a source of hope of a brighter future.
Enzo is well conscious that the comparison between him and Andrew is definitely not to his advantage, making him seem even blander than the usual. Andrew bursts with energy and self-confidence, he is outgoing and sharp, witty and bold, and he knows very well how to treat a woman. On the contrary, Enzo is shy and gentle and keeps his emotions and his thoughts inward. He has seen very little of the world, and can’t go through long monologues because he does not hold very mainstream interests, and he does not know how to make his atypical passions sound interesting for others.
Enzo could have stood a chance with Isabelle, because as he gets to know a person better, he grows more confident. With time and trust, he can come to reveal his deepest nature, which is very far from the insecure, boring and slow-witted boy everyone knows. There is a muffled fire in the deepest of his soul and his heart, a fire only asking to see the light and breathe the air to make him blossom in life.
Time has come to go back to duty, a field study for the occurrence, and Enzo is to leave the oppressing little table without a hint of regret, now almost annoyed with her too melodramatic voice. At that moment, Andrew remembers that it is also time for him to go, because he is already too late. Enzo winces at that. He hates people who lack delicacy. A sensitive person would not have come to sit one hour between them, without being sure not to disturb. He came when the discussion could have gotten deeper and much more interesting.
Isabelle gives him what seems to be an apologetic smile. Enzo tries to keep the hardness away from his gaze. He coldly shakes Andrew’s hand who has the nerve to add a resounding: “See ya soon guys!”
Enzo walks away and gets on metallic donkey; he pedals fiercely, finally breathing at ease, and he takes the shortest road this time. He climbs a cobbled path through a little forest, goes through half of UNIL’s campus, not looking at the fields, the lake and the mountains, nor at the ugly concrete buildings of the seventies. He focuses on getting the fastest to EPFL, evacuating his cold anger through the raging and cyclic motion of his legs and the burning feeling in his lungs, trying to forget about his failed opportunity, for now at least.
Students have been walking for fifteen minutes, climbing the abrupt eastern slope leading on the small hill of Ecublens, and going down on its gentler western slope, discovering its rear countryside and heading toward the Venoge river that runs at its bottom. For now, the Venoge is hidden by a green casting, the little forest they are to later explore.
They emerge from a neighborhood filled with a series of identical houses aligned like a field of onions. They are all three-storeys with tiled roofs, built with an obvious desire of well-integrating in the landscape. That’s certainly a failure, but they look tolerably ugly, Enzo notices. Their gardens are devoid of mystery, with their cropped lawns and their geometrically trimmed shrubs.
Groups of two or three students walk together, as many as the width of the little soil path can hold. The teacher leads the way, seeming quite young with his sneakers and his t-shirt, and asking personal questions to the students close to him. That’s another particularity of the Swiss society, which is not very hierarchical. In Sicily, it would be much less natural to approach teachers this way.
Enzo can recognize some fields of corn, radishes and potatoes extending from both sides of the trail. There are but few trees, throwing their long afternoon shadows.
The professor gives casual explanations. A species of invading shrubs here. An interesting hedge there, refuge for many species of endangered birds. A field covered by violet flowers, the only source of nourishment of bees in this season. Enzo takes notes and makes fast and precise sketches in his copybook. He gets a comment from one of the boy walking close to him, wondering why he doesn’t use a camera to save himself the trouble. Enzo pointedly replies that he is used to do things this way.
They get through another little hamlet, appearing to be sewn in the creases and folds of the land from a distance, sheltered from the fury of the winds of the lake often rushing through this valley, with only some of its pointed roofs emerging. Time seems to have stopped between these irregular walls made of a blend of stones and lime, the wooden barns containing old farm tools and firewood already stocked there for the winter, their imposing and wavy roofs covered by a greenish moss, the old fountains where water flows through several basins and wooden barrels, and colorful cobbled floors made of pebbles from the lake. Human beings are the only missing element, for the whole village seems to be asleep.
Enzo washes down his face with the icy water of a fountain. He is enjoying more than he would have thought this field trip. All these fields remind him of Enna. A pattern of furrows and earth and stones, repeated to infinity. He longs to bring a book and spend a whole day here, reading and drawing in a peaceful quietness only troubled with flying and singing birds and swirling clouds of gnats and midges.
While crossing apple orchards, Enzo has to fight against the urge to pick one of these red appetizing fruits. He may have taken one if he were alone, but he already knows enough about Switzerland customs not to do it in front of his classmates.
They finally penetrate in the forest. The soil is getting damper and muddy, and the air cooler. The professor stops them, asking what they have noticed. Many students speak at the same time.
“Indeed, we are entering a different ecosystem. There is much less sun here, more moisture, the soil is of a different nature, the air temperature is two or three degrees cooler in summer, and warmer in winter. The boundary between two ecosystems in called an ecotone. It is extremely important, because many edge species live only in these boundaries that offer hybrid habitat conditions. Unfortunately, these boundaries are not protected by regulations, and fields often run till the very extremity of the forest, impoverishing biodiversity,” the teacher says.
They reach the river. It is blue and green and silver, depending on the whim of shadows, and it is flanked by mighty leaned-over trees. They sit down on mossy trunks, drawing out small snacks, while the teacher pursues his explanations.
“Ecological engineers need to look very carefully at things, because every detail matters. As you have seen in class, there were ecological restoration projects which failed miserably, despite all the money and science involved. Ecology is a very complex field, because there are hundreds of biological, chemical, physical and climatic parameters that can intervene. So if you decide to follow this path beyond this course, you need to get practice in the observation and analysis of ecosystems.”
Enzo thinks with no little proud that it’s definitely something he does naturally, at least in part. So choosing environmental engineering wasn’t such a bad idea…
The professor adds: “For the forest to be ecologically rich, it needs to have trees at all the stages of their life: little sprouts, tall adult trees, old trees and dead wood. We sometimes clear forests of dead wood, but it’s a big mistake. There are hundreds of organism that needs that dead wood to survive, from species of little birds carving their nest into it, to lizards and earthworms. Moreover, when several trees close to each other die, more sunlight reaches the ground in certain spots, allowing different species to settle, enhancing the biodiversity.
“Now, can you tell if this forest is natural or artificial, and why?”
And so continues the afternoon, fruitful in exploring and understanding the various ecosystems. It’s a course that has ignited Enzo’s passion. Restoring degraded ecosystems sounds as quite a complex and noble challenge. And who could be better suited than him to fulfill this mission with his close relationship with nature?
He makes the project to come back with his bicycle someday and to ride on the small muddy path along the river up to its source. It’s deeply rooted in his temperament to look back for the origins of things, and to try getting at a deeper level of understanding…
On the way back to EPFL, as the sun is lowering and about to take its plunge behind the mountains, Enzo makes the acquaintance of two of his classmates.
Adrien, a Valaisan boy, starts saying the names of the different species of trees and shrubs after understanding that Enzo ignored most of them, for the Sicilian Mediterranean vegetation is quite different. They are soon joined by a Portuguese girl, Camila, who benefits from the explanations for identical reasons. Enzo takes notes on his copybook, with fast sketches of the shape of leafs writing their names in the margin. He appreciates the fact that Adrien is quite patient, despite the rest of the class having got much ahead. His newfound companions are impressed by the precision of his pencil stroke, making laudatory comments about it.
They discuss about the ongoing semester, and the various courses they’re taking, and they decide to do the course project together, on the suggestion of Camila. When they get by the campus, Adrien proposes to go have a beer at Satellite, EPFL’s bar, to celebrate that.
Enzo was planning to go swimming at the lake, for he made the pledge to swim every single day and gradually getting used to the drop of temperatures. That’s only one of the tasks he has imposed himself with, aiming to increase his strength and his determination. After some hesitation, Enzo relinquishes the lake for today because he has felt immediately bonded to the two others, enjoying their unpretentious attitude and the easiness of their exchange.
They buy their beers from Satellite, which offers a wide choice, much wider than necessary, and they sit down in Esplanade, the central square of the university with outdoor tables and a view on the sunset.
Mountains are glowing with dozens of fleeting colors. The meridional side of the mountains glows with warm colors, red, orange and yellow, whereas the other side is dressed up with cold colors, mallow, grey-blue and white. It’s as if summer and winter were battling over. Tonight, summer has won a battle, but not the war. The twilight chill in the wind softly whispers the unavoidable outcome of this war…
Adrien tells Camila and Enzo about his bachelor years at EPFL explaining how things work out and what teachers are expecting from them. He’s average sized and fit, with large blue eyes and equally large eyeglasses. His face looks a little younger than his age, and this gives him a slightly naive air, but he seems to be good-natured and rather clever. His skin is a little red, probably because of the sun.
“In the Valais we’re blessed with the most of sunlight in all Switzerland. We’re generally considered as the jolly Southerners, people who can’t make a business deal before several glasses of wine…” Adrien laughs. “There are some prejudices against us, and needless to say that we’re not considered very seriously…”
“There must be truth in it, if we’re here enjoying a drink this evening!” Enzo jokes. “More seriously, that’s also how we feel in Sicily. We’re considered as the terrone, the mafiosi, the idle ones…”
“That’s cute solidarity between Southerners!” Camila exclaims. “From what I’ve understood, we’re also looked down on in Switzerland. There are so, so many of us here. It’s incredible. I can hear Portuguese almost everywhere. I didn’t expect that before arriving…”
Camila is from Lisbon, only here for an exchange year. She’s skinny and petite, and has very dark features and little sparkling eyes. She speaks French a bit slowly, but quite understandably, for she previously studied at the French Lycée of Lisbon.
“Enzo, would you mind giving me your copybook to make some photocopies of all the things you’ve drawn and written today?” she asks.
“No, of course not, it’s my pleasure if you take it!”
And so goes on their discussion, while the crescent moon brightens in a darkening sky. It smoothly flies from one topic to another, and they talk about their first impression of Switzerland, the reasons that decided they to come, and the things they like in life.
Enzo tells his story in brief, mentioning the dire economic state of his family without dwelling into details, and of course, not saying anything about his mother.
They discover that the three of them like hikings, and Enzo finds a new chess partner in Adrien, drawing more than a project in perspective for the months to come. They also decide to soon go again to the Venoge river to study the site more carefully. Maybe during the next weekend.
It feels heavenly good to have new friends, a feeling Enzo almost forgot about.
Enzo opens the door of his apartment with apprehension, immediately relieved not to see the shadow of Mehdi. Furthermore, there is no light filtering from under the door of the guy’s room.
He unlocks his own door, steps in the dusky room without turning the light on, and throws himself delightedly on the softness of his bed, worn out by a long and intense day. He extends his arm, managing to turn on the little radio he brought from Sicily. It fills the room with the gentle notes of classical music.
He stares at the ceiling, avoiding to close his eyes as it is not yet the time to fall asleep. He slows down his respiration, stretching and relaxing all his muscles from the neck to the toes. A fleeting idea that has been in the air since the afternoon is slowly taking shape. Its sharp edges are emerging out of a colorless mist, and it is gently expanding.
Enzo can eventually see it in all its nakedness. He is physically attracted to Isabelle but he does not love her. Not yet at least. She’s clever and witty and charming but there is something else missing. Of course, if she asked him to date her, he would give it a try. But that is not going to happen.
He needs someone who will take the time to deeply understand him, and that he will profoundly understand in return. Someone who will help him drawing out the fire that has always burned inside of him to use it for more positive purposes. Enzo feels that he can give immensely, both to the person he will love and to the world in general.
It is pointless to get dragged in a hopeless passion for Isabelle, as what had happened for almost three years in Sicily; his mad and foolish love for Azzurra, without even knowing her well. He idealized that girl, placing her on a pedestal like a Greek marble statue, with a laurel wreath. He was tortured by his love for months and months. And what caught him at first? What? Her physical beauty, and the qualities and sensitivity he thought that he could associate with the pleasant traits of her face. Deceitful beauty! It’s finally time to learn that not what all is beautiful is good, and not all what is ugly is bad!
His heart pounds with eagerness at the perspective of finally finding his soul mate. The ideal girl that he will complete, and that will complete him. Walking hand in hand on the tortuous path of life, and stimulating each other to become stronger persons and overcome their weaknesses. They would do marvels together!
Enzo repels the faces of Azzurra and Isabelle that are quick to invade his mind, and focuses on the character that he has been unconsciously attributing to his ideal fair lady. She is clever – no, very clever – and able to sustain any intellectual conversation with him. She is very sensitive, feeling and showing a deep sympathy for the hardships he has gone through, and ideally having lived similar experiences herself. Yet, the last thing he’d want from her is pity or condescension! She shares some passions with him, such as loving to walk in nature and listen to elements; and most importantly, she expresses her depth of character through an artistic side of her own, it doesn’t matter whether it is related to drawing, writing or music… And finally, she is not very sociable and outgoing in society, and punctilious in selecting her friends. For sure, Isabelle does not correspond to that description… And nightclubs are definitely not the best places to look for his fair lady.
I hope that I am going to find you soon enough, wherever you are, for I can’t do without you anymore! He wonders if thinking very intensely of something can help it happening…
However, his mood is not slow to get dismal remembering reading that it is a big mistake to wait for the perfect love, for the soul mate, or whatever you call it. First, does it really exist? And second, in the remote case it does, how will you manage to recognize and conquer her if you are but an artless boy with no experience, awkward as a beardless teenager? Seducing and conquering the heart of a woman is a combat of every instant. And you should seduce the girl before starting to love her…
Thick clouds are blanketing the horizon, and Enzo doesn’t see things very clearly anymore. It goes against his basic instincts to courtship a woman he doesn’t love. And besides, it’s wrong, isn’t it? Is it all those stories which Nonna has told him that made him such a romantic and an idealist?
Yet, society has evolved. Couples now form and dissolve in less than the time it needs a seaturtle to make its way back to the same beach. And everyone arrives with some experience in the nuptial bed… Is it the right choice to go against the current?
After hefting over the different stages of his reasoning, Enzo finds out that he is currently not in the ability of responding. He jumps on his feet, putting on his cozy slippers, and heads toward the kitchen, his mind busy reconstructing and dissecting his conversation with Isabelle, and his rationality melting away with the remembrance of the sweetness of her face and her body.
The kitchen is now bustling as Romina, Charlotte and one of the latter’s friend are cooking. They greet Enzo rather warmly. Unusual mixtures of odors are emerging from the cooking pots, not unpleasant in themselves. Grilled onion and meat, molten cheese and chocolate.
Enzo washes tomatoes and zucchinis, cuts them thin, and immerse them in water in a pan, adding some basil leaves and a spoon of salt. Romina, a tall and slightly chubby false blonde from Saragossa, doing an exchange semester in electrical engineering, exclaims:
“Let me guess, Enzo! Are you preparing pasta with vegetables?”
Enzo smiles apologetically and nods: “That’s not a very difficult guess…”
“If you ever get tired of that, you can have some tortillas!”
“Oh, that’s too kind. Thank you. But not today…” Enzo replies, prompt in his refusal but trying to keep the disgust off his face. No, never again!
Romina is attending the cooking of a plate of tortillas and a steak, Spanish music emerging from her open laptop. She buys frozen food, and her only task consists in buttering up everything. It’s nauseating to see the meat swimming in a pool of buttery oil and fat. Enzo once tasted a small bit of her tortillas, coming to immediately regret it afterwards.
Charlotte’s cooking is not much better. She looks rather fond of it, spending hours in the kitchen with her friends, actively using the stove, but alas, results seem to be inversely proportional to the efforts she puts into it. She is preparing several dishes; he recognizes a quiche and a cake. Enzo refrains from asking questions about them, because otherwise his flatmate will insist that he tastes. And to put it plainly, he has a sensitive stomach used to the simplicity of Sicilian food.
Enzo curses the clumsiness of his hands after noticing a cut on his index, which he washes with cold water. Hands only good for drawing. After placing the pan to boil on the hotplate, he starts watering his plants. He has bought basil, thyme, rosemary and mint plants, and has planted seeds of lemon, orange, chestnut, avocado and apple in other empty pots. The pots are aligned in front of the large glazed window of the living room to catch a maximum of sunlight. It is an inexpensive occupation, and watching his plants growing is something Enzo is fond of. He closely monitors the smallest of sprouts and this reminds him of his childhood, of daybreaks in which he excitedly ran to the fields to see if the seeds he had planted had finally grown up, and which shapes their leaves would have. It fascinated him!
The apartment has been furnished at random. Someone has brought a red and yellow plastified tablecloth. The empty wooden cubes have been stacked up between the kitchen and the living room, forming a long improvised bar, occupied with some bottles of juice and alcohol. Two couches have suddenly appeared in the living room, one night he was coming back from university.
Romina, Charlotte and her friend Sylvie settle down at the table, starting to eat, and sharing small portions of their meals with each other. A culinary cultural exchange. The atmosphere is fairly good, without being excellent. Charlotte speaks too fast and in slang, doing but few efforts to communicate with Romina whose French is a bit cumbersome. The resulting conversations are rarely interesting.
Enzo dips the penne in the boiling water. He eats with his flatmates when they happen to cook at the same time, and his relationship with the two girls is rather friendly. However, he can feel that they consider him as a strange specimen. They sometimes allude to that, each in her own way, in more or less subtle ways.
“All the Italians I met are very fun to be around, and they love to party.”
“I’ve been to Italy and all the men were trying to seduce me in the street…”
“I’ve never met a serious Italian…”
“When I did an exchange semester in Berlin, my flatmate was Italian, and he cooked for me every night. His food was amazingly, heavenly delicious!”
To the point that Enzo starts cursing those Italians in his mind. If only people could let him be himself, Enzo Bardi, without necessarily drawing a comparison with how his compatriots behave. He’s not going to start cooking for people who are not his close friends, nor is he going to change to please them.
Enzo fills up his plate and sits at the table. Charlotte and Sylvie are discussing about a free French night party they go to every Thursday, and where you can also learn to dance on the rhythms of the seventies. They suggest to Romina and Enzo to come with them tomorrow.
“Sorry girls, I have my rugby training tomorrow evening, so it’s going to be impossible, but hopefully another time,” Romina says. Everyone chuckles. It’s not exactly the same thing to play rugby with cleated shoes on the muddy green field along the lake than to dance on a slow-beat song with light ballerinas on a velvet carpet.
When Enzo notices that Charlotte is expectantly looking at him, he forcefully mutters: “Uhm, I’d like to. But I’ll see… how much I advance with my studies.” He needs to think about it. He has an instinctive aversion for dancing and he didn’t like much Charlotte’s friends; she is not at all selective in her choices, for it seems that the only prerequisite is to be French. However, the forums of seduction – his new bible – strongly encourage to learn dancing, describing it as a great way to make interesting encounters and to boost your social circle and aura. Dancing seems to be a miracle solution for shy people who happen to lack trust in themselves. And that’s certainly a path that he would gain to explore…
Romina asks her flatmates if they are participating to any of the activities organized by X-Change, the student society taking care of students in exchange, and organizing dozens of different activities such as visiting touristic places, tasting the Swiss culinary specialties, sportive events and partying.
In addition to the weekly party organized by X-Change, which usually takes place on Wednesdays or Fridays, there is a wine tasting in the vineries of Lavaux and a tour in the old city of Fribourg, all happening next week. The three girls hurried to register for the wine tasting thing, which costed only fifteen francs, and they heard that there are no places left. Enzo is not part of X-Change, not being an exchange student, as he is doing his full master in EPFL. Wine tasting seems to be one of the most popular activities, but he doesn’t regret not signing up. However, the visit of Fribourg interests him, prices are lower than if he went by his own means and it can be an occasion for meeting new people, so he resolves to go to the offices and sign up tomorrow, without waiting for all the places to be sold out. The girls are less interested by Fribourg, as they already have too much to study… And they clearly privilege partying against exploring the country.
The door brutally opens, and a chilly breeze fills in the apartment. Mehdi has arrived, followed by two of his usual friends, and the conversation abruptly stops. He utterly ignores Enzo and Romina, greets Charlotte and unlocks his door with aggressiveness. He stomps in his room, pulls the flush without bothering to close the door, and swiftly comes back to the living room, where his friends have sat down on the variegated couches, after helping themselves with beers from the fridge. As always, they speak loudly, almost shouting. They often talk disparagingly about the life in Switzerland, about the dullness and ingenuity of Swiss people, and wondering at how Swiss girls are unapproachable and don’t appreciate their albeit refined sense of humor. They avoid this latter topic when Charlotte is in the living room.
A din of cooking pans follows, with rivulets of sauces spilling over, accompanied with a great deal of ill will.
“What an asshole,” Romina mutters between her teeth.
Since the discussion with Enzo, Mehdi has no longer dared to behave as he previously did. He keeps on inviting his friends, but they leave before midnight to continue their parties elsewhere. The Swiss regulations being quite intransigent, someone making too much noise at night can be heavily fined if the police is called. However, Mehdi makes sure to show his grudges in other ways, slamming doors whenever possible, leaving his mess after cooking and speaking to his flatmates with harshness and an utter lack of civility.
Mehdi has made it crystal clear that he considers Enzo as a pain in the ass, and that he is only waiting to take his revenge. With Romina, things are a little different. She is very straightforward and she ordered him to clean his mess on several occasions. Her talk drifted on touchy cultural arguments such as exclaiming about how dirty Arabs were, and wondering how someone could be a muslim and drink alcohol. She has a black and white vision of the world pushed to the extreme, Enzo has noticed, and among other things, she seems to hate religions, often mentioning them as a global nuisance through the conversation. She resents the fact that they were allowed to build mosques in Spain for instance. No wonder that Mehdi looks at her with so much animosity.
As to Charlotte, she gets along with Mehdi fairly well. She seems oblivious to the underlying tensions existing between him and her two other flatmates. As a matter of fact, she can get along anyone. She is not at all selective in her acquaintances, frequenting a great deal of different people. Surprisingly, this does not seem to broaden her horizons quite a bit, and she has thick prejudices about other cultures, as she considers everything from her French lense. To her credit, despite her ignorance, she sounds much more respectful and open-minded respect to Romina at this level.
“Mehdi! Are you coming to the French party tomorrow?” Charlotte says.
Mehdi gives an intended look to his friends. “Yea, of course, we’re all coming!”
Romina rolls her eyes while cleaning her dishes, exchanging an annoyed look with Enzo who’s standing next to her, seeming to silently curse the ingenuity of Charlotte. Enzo shrugs. He well-knows that Charlotte invites anyone, but then at the party, she certainly does not bother staying with all the people she has invited.
The acrid smell of smoke tickles Enzo’s nostrils. He turnabouts and notices that one of the Algerians has lit a cigarette.
“Please don’t smoke in the apartment,” Enzo says.
“Mind your own business!” thunders Mehdi. “Charlotte, you’re not disturbed by the smoke, are you?”
“No, I don’t mind it…”
“That’s forbidden. Period. If I see you or any of your friends smoking again here, I will immediately complain to the administration.”
“I will as well!” exclaims Romina. “Get that cigarette out of here!”
“Please keep quiet guys,” Charlotte says.
“Look at how quiet I am. But he needs to respect the rules,” retorts Enzo.
“Come on Enzo, it’s a students’ dorms, we’re not at the army. In France we…”
“Charlotte please, don’t step in that matter. The internal regulations say that it is forbidden to smoke inside. And Romina and myself are disturbed by the smoke… so there is no valid reason to break the law.” Charlotte’s supposedly impartial interference is insupportable.
Mehdi makes an imperious sign ordering his friend not to move, confrontation printed on his face.
“Do you understand French? Get your filth out of here, immediately!” thunders Romina.
“Fine Miss, fine,” replies the guy that was the initial cause of the discussion. “Let’s not make her angry ya Mehdi.” He opens the door of the apartment, and resumes smoking his cigarette in the outside corridor, with an insolent smile displayed on his face.
The latter does not reply, gratifying his flatmates with a look of hate.
“My nearly infinite patience is running out,” Romina mildly announces, using English probably to have a greater precision of language. She sounds twice as threatening as when she was shouting. “Be careful Mehdi, if you continue behaving like tonight, you will soon have a very, very, very bad surprise. Don’t forget it. You don’t know yet what I am capable of doing.” The hint of a sinister grin distorts her mouth.
Mehdi immediately reacts to save his face. He gathers his friends while swearing and insulting his flatmates, their mothers and their sisters, while associating them with the whole country that is welcoming him; he swiftly goes out, abandoning his cooking pans boiling on the hot plates, and furiously banging the door of the apartment.
Enzo draws a sigh of relief. Charlotte frowns, claiming that he and Romina should display their goodwill, by making some efforts and concessions, and she withdraws to her room followed by Sylvie, silent and discreet like a shadow.
Romina makes a broad smile and whispers: “That’s the way to get rid of this asshole at length!”
Enzo answers to her smile, decontracting his face, and he nods, hoping her to be right, but not sure of it underneath. Mehdi is a hard bone, the kind of person who will try his best to disgust his flatmates and get the end word.
After finishing cleaning of his dishes, Enzo goes back to his room, already apprehensive of all the noise that Mehdi will do when coming back at home around midnight or two in the morning. A hurricane of banged doors, plates and cooking pots, and then a skype conversation or endless TV shows till four in the morning. The walls between rooms are completely permeable to the noise, and Mehdi refused to use headphones when Enzo had complained, saying: “I dare you to bring the securities and complain of the noise. They will laugh at you.” Indeed, if you call the security guards responsible of keeping the quietness at night, they will make you pay the fine if they judge that your complaint is unjustified. Shelling wallets. That’s the Swiss way to keep things quiet and avoid abuses.
Unfortunately, Mehdi shares a wall with Enzo, and another wall with the outside corridor, so he is the only one to suffer from his nocturne dissipated behavior. For now, his unique self-defense mechanism consists in letting his cellphone’s alarm ringing for ten minutes in the morning, hoping for it to wake up his damned flatmate. When left to nature, the latter gets up at twelve or even later, and does not seem to assiduously go to his classes at the high school of business.
Enzo tries to push these thoughts out of his head. He opens his copybook with the sketches and notes taken during the day and completes them.
Then, he draws out from his backpack the Memory of Casanova, a thick book written by the famous Venetian seducer of the eighteenth century. He stumbled upon it at the library, and ended up skimming through its old leafs just out of curiosity. It has revealed a surprisingly interesting read, because despite Casanova’s bragging about all his feminine conquests, he offers an accurate and vivid picture of the European society at that time, of how people and women thought and behaved (certain things are still quite actual), and of all his incredible adventures and bravados. What’s sobering is that despite having almost all the women he could desire, he didn’t seem to be very happy in his life.
Enzo reads until his eyes are hurting; he then washes his teeth, shutting down a thought about Mehdi while welcoming another one about Isabelle (that’s a better strategy to fall asleep); he does a series of thirty push-ups, fills his ears with his yellow plugs to avoid hearing too much of Mehdi’s noises during the night, turns off the light and gets to bed.
You can continue your reading with chapter 5 – the night of museums