The cost of hotel rooms in Geneva erupted like an Icelandic volcanoe. My colleague Ann and I were concerned about costs so our main worry was to find a place to stay. British friends Mark and Aji living in Geneva came to our rescue like knights in shining armour. Instead of a game of Musical Chairs it was a case of ‘Musical Appartments’. Mark had loaned Aji his ski apartment in Val D’Isere for a long-weekend and we moved into Aji’s Geneva apartment. The architectural style was comfortable 1930s. I could imagine PG Woodhouse’s Bertie Wooster or Agatha Christie’s Detective Poirot entering the quaint little old fashioned lift with its black marble floor and hand operated clanging gates. Ann and I spent much of Friday and Saturday trying to find the best way for Ann to get home to her island in the South of Sweden and me to get home to the East Sussex countryside.
We were originally booked home on Easy-Jet on Friday morning 16th April. As airports across Europe hunkered down other options for finding conventional means of transport narrowed. Eurostar and Rental cars were booked up. Rumours circulated that airports might be shut down for weeks. I began to dream up adventurous ways to get home. Would it be possible to find my way by boat up the canals and rivers across Switzerland and France to one of the French Channel ports? What if I took the train to Italy and hitched a passage on a cargo ship from an Italian port across the Mediterranean into the Atlantic and across the Bay of Biscay?
My final choice of route was more mundane. Early Sunday morning I booked the earliest available seat (the following Tuesday) on the fast speed train to Paris and hence by Eurostar to UK. Ann booked a seat for the Monday train via Basle to Hanover. Her husband would drive 10 hours from Sweden to collect her from Germany. Once we had a roof over our heads and had booked our trains we could relax and explore.
The weather was chilly but sunny. I suggested we make a day excursion to the village of Les Avants where I went to school. To reach the hamlet of Les Avants Ann and I took the train from Geneva through Lausanne to Montreux. The journey to Montreux took less than a couple of hours alongside Lac Leman past vineyards, villas, spring blossom trees and flowers and the Nestlé Chocolate factory at Vevey. At the start and finish of the school-term my train journeys along this line had been at night. At Montreux we boarded the ‘Little Blue Train’ for a 20 minute ride up the mountainside to the tiny sleepy hamlet of Les Avants.
When I was a pupil at the school the words ‘Saloon Bar’ were still engraved in frosted glass on our classroom window, a legacy from the time when the school building had been the fashionable Grand Hotel, in the ski resort of Les Avants. In an early form of climate change the snow-line had moved up the mountains. After Les Avants stopped being a ski resort Chatelard School moved into the building. In Spring the slopes are white with carpets of narcisses. In my memory I could still smell that overpowering perfume even the milk from the grazing cows tasted of it. I had posted boxes of flowers home to my Father and Step-mother in London.
I had hoped to see the slopes of narcisses on this visit, but we were told the blooms won’t flower until May.
We wandered through the school grounds. Chatelard school is now a Roman Catholic centre for girls from Mexico. Virgin Mary statues are dotted around the gardens.
When I was at Chatelard School playwright, composer, actor and singer , Noel Coward, had a villa a little further up the village from our school. I remember our school matron walking and cycling up the road to change the great man’s bandage when he hurt his ankle. When Actor Richard Burton stayed as a guest with Noel Coward we sex-starved teen-age school-girls hung from our balconies by our toe-nails to catch a glimpse of the ‘handsome hulk’ catching the little mountain railway from Les Avants to travel up the line to the fashionable ski-resort of Gstaad where film star Liz Taylor was staying. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were carrying on a clandestine love-affair at that time. I later came across another romantic connection with Les Avants when I was reading an Ernest Hemingway novel. A lovers’ tryst takes place in the village I don’t remember whether it is in ‘Farewell to Arms’ or ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’.
My memories of my time at Chatelard School were happy. Lots of laughter, friendships, lively chatter, and beautiful views. At the end of the Summer Term when the train pulled out of the tiny station by the full moon the village brass band played us out with the song “So long it’s been good to know you.” There was not a dry eye on the train - my class mates came from South America, USA , Ghana, Hong Kong and across Europe. Most of us would never see each other again.
In those days there were 12-13 Swiss francs to the pound, now it’s around 1.5 Swiss Francs to the pound. Our weekly visits to the chalet style Helioda Restaurant were our school-girl treats . We spent most of our our pocket money there on Coupe Danemark and Jus de Pommes (fresh apple juice).
The Rosa Kleb who now runs the Helioda crossed her arms, glared at us and said in French “We stop serving lunch at 1.30”. The only other restaurant in the village was closed for holidays. I said it was 1.28 and asked if she could manage at least a cheese salad or a cheese sandwich. I explained I used to go to school across the road and possibly she could manage an ice-cream for old times sake. Without a trace of warmth she repeated the kitchen is closed and stomped off.
The Station bar was more welcoming. As I sat on the terrace in the sunshine drinking a beer and nibbling nuts I reflected – possibly it is better not to go back to places .The views are still there, but my new memories of Les Avants are gloom and deadness.