I had about twenty or thirty pages of notes, eager to be written, when we arrived in Vitznau. We had spent the last few weeks in many different countries, and between countries we stopped in Lisbon to celebrate my book finally being in bookshop windows and a few other things.
We needed peace and sought it in Vitznau, wanting to escape here like to an island suddenly seen somewhere in the sea after drifting for a long time. Protected by expensive wine prices. Honestly, what are those prices? It has nothing to do with drinking wine anymore. In Portugal, you pay a few euros for a bottle filtered by gravity and crushed by feet. Here, you get French stuff that’s as expensive as a used car because everyone buys it, and because that’s how it is in francs.
The good thing was that I had a week of work ahead that couldn’t be disturbed by anything or anyone except my girlfriend. No one would ask if we were coming for dinner today and then going to a bar or if I felt like flying somewhere tomorrow. The only ones asking would be the waiters.
We had already heard a lot about this place and this hotel. Personally, I knew nothing. Only that there was a hotel by the lake that liked my stories and wanted to know if I could write them here too. They said Hesse had been there too. That comforted me and didn’t comfort me. Hesse and I had already had a tense relationship in other beautiful hotels. For me, he’s a bit of the type who calls the cops at night when there’s too much wine being drunk somewhere or when someone is having sex in the rooms and he’s not. Don’t get me wrong, I love good hotels. But the old ones. Grand style. They are stages on which our story prefers to unfold, if it can’t happen in Lisbon.
In Switzerland, I always feel guilty. Here, the world is too orderly. A wonderful country, so beautiful and peaceful that it feels like a perfidious peace because nothing in the world is so peaceful. Underneath, the buttermilk simmers. You only say “Grüzi” politely so as not to murder each other. Switzerland’s biggest problem is at most a construction site traffic light that doesn’t switch correctly. And that’s where we’re going, to the safest place in Switzerland. The corner around Lake Lucerne that boomed during the Second World War. Every person from Basel who was someone and wanted to stay that way built a house here. There are military things everywhere, loopholes, bunkers and so on. Sometimes a rock opens up here and there and a military boat comes out or slams into the rocks, like in James Bond.
By the way, my Portuguese girlfriend didn’t find it cool at all that I dragged her to cold Switzerland a week before a wedding. I promised her sunshine, and the sun came, even on that day, briefly breaking through the clouds. Just before it set, it gilded everything in a dark blue tint and cast its last lights on random houses. Beautiful. Then it was night, and the half-truth came to an end. When it’s dark, at least it’s not grey anymore. In a place called Küssnacht, we had to change trains. I thought, what a name for a place to change trains.
On the first morning, I wanted to write right away. But in our room, there was no table, only a structure that looked like one. You could use it to like things on Facebook or write emails, but not books. I went to the reception and asked politely, and they recommended the lobby, but it was too busy, the restaurant too busy as well, the cigar room had no outlet, and you don’t write at the bar, you save it for afterwards. The friendly receptionist couldn’t understand, and neither could her colleague. For them, a chair was just a chair and a table was just a table, and for me, on that day, it was also always the same receptionist I asked, or it was a different one.
I ended up in a conference room with carpet, bottles of Selters, and whiteboards. Below me was the power strip. It was the most secular atmosphere in which I had ever written or wanted to write because it turned me off so much. Outside, the rain was pounding against the windows, and inside, I saw graphs on whiteboards, bottle openers, Selters bottles, internet password: Vitznauseminar20. The worst part about the seminar room was that it wasn’t even part of the hotel. So, I flew to Switzerland to write about a hotel and ended up not being in that hotel.
The hotel manager had little time or it felt like he didn’t. A cardinal sin because the most important thing for a hotel director is to make the guest feel like the most important person in the world, even if he has more important things to do. Ciriaco Campus, Manager of the Reids Palace in Madeira, had two aperitifs with us last week during a fire alarm and had 26 missed calls afterward.
We didn’t even get a handwritten welcome letter. A member of the management reassured me and said to give it time; they would write the letter. They were such a young team, all under 30, and still had a lot to learn, including from our visit. Her kind and friendly nature comforted me. She gave me that special hotel feeling, of being the most important person in the world for a moment. She said we could go motorboating once the rain stopped, and she apologised sincerely. She would immediately arrange a workspace without whiteboards and organise another room. While waiting for her and the room, I thought about it. I thought, I’m an asshole.
The new room was the most beautiful ugly room I had ever seen. Also new, but somehow that didn’t matter. This room was nothing more than what it was: a tremendous view. A view so beautiful that you didn’t need to see the room anymore. Golden afternoon light came in and settled on a continuous mattress. You could almost pee in the lake from the balcony. My book by Hölderlin fluttered on the railing in the wind, and a bit of wind came in and dried us after we had freed ourselves from a very specific feeling. So we lay there, with a view, for a while, speechless, not silent, and watched the light change, like watching a play. It was first dazzling, then gold, and then it turned blue-red and violet. In the middle of the lake was a very exotic island that wasn’t an exotic island at all, but looked like one, and we imagined it that way. We could see all of this from the bed, and from the bed, through large open balcony doors, you could see a lake that resembled the seas.
Then the light changed again and that gave me the rest. I couldn’t take it anymore, grabbed a bathrobe, and ran down to the management, saying, I’m in, I’ll write it, this place is magical.
After I calmed down, we organised our days. Breakfast alone, work alone and lunch together. Sitting outside at noon, feeling the sun on the skin, seeing the lake and the island that wasn’t an island, and the mountains with the shadows, the clouds casting shadows, eating a trout that had just swum in the lake, and drinking Spanish white wine with the woman you love, even if you argue a bit, is wonderful. When the sun comes out, it all makes sense.
We just can’t help it and order French oysters in Switzerland, even if it’s wrong. They are delicious and better than the Portuguese ones. She squeezes the yellow lemons over sea-coloured oysters with her red fingernails, like a rainbow. The sauna was outside by the lake and you could sit in it and then swim in the lake for a while.
In the evenings, when the lake was calm like a Negroni glass, I would meet my firlfriend for an aperitif, and we would talk about the day. Some villagers came barefoot, with their motorboats, and joined us for a drink.
The house menu was small but good and never got boring. On the contrary, we often ordered the same things again and looked forward to it even as we fell asleep. The waiters asked, perhaps a bit too often, how we were doing, if the food was good, and if we wanted another glass. But that was okay. They hadn’t sat with their loved ones at such a table and passionately discussed things of love, and were asked so often if everything was okay.
On our last day, we finally arrived. It’s often the case that you only arrive just before you leave. You leave behind a longing, something of yourself that you can only find again when you return to that place. Such places trigger something, bring movement to consciousness, take you to your limits and beyond. This place did something to me; I just don’t know what yet. But it must be good if I like it so much, even though it’s not really my thing. I would have to visit it with other people to understand it better. And alone. Oh, that’s what I’m thinking now, at 6 in the morning, alone in the restaurant. It’s raining outside, of course. Beautifully melancholic. Besides, the farewell makes things shine with a power that the farewell gives them, not the things themselves. But in the end, we had this wonderful routine within us. She did her thing, I did mine, and we spent the afternoons in bed, absorbing the sunlight. The staff already knew us and didn’t wonder anymore when I needed something special to write or more wine, and they knew that a table is not just a table, but more or sometimes less. Once, we even drove around the curve and saw the island that was not really an island. For us, it will always remain one, and it revealed itself again in the farewell, in this very special light.
This is an excerpt of the story ‘Dekadent’ by Konstantin Arnold.
Original story written in German. English translation reviewed by Joseph Hildula.