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Zurich to the Edge of the Black Forest: Wanderings of a Wayfaring Woman

By Neela Bhattacharya Saxena

I stood awe-struck on the shores of Lake Zurich that locals call Zurichsee and asked a stranger to take a picture. I have found myself many a times in places I did not plan to be. They say a daemon in us pushes us out of the comfort of the home to wander lonely as a cloud. Wandering is the skill of unknowing; it brings us to spaces that we could not ever dream of. I can think of so many travelogues that I read as a child, including a Bengali writer whose pseudonym was ‘Jajabar’, the nomad. A song too comes to mind: ‘ami ek jajabar’ (I am a wanderer). But usually men, rather men of leisure, take such freedom for granted, whose loafing around was to be expected. I have been a privileged woman, who could zig zag through unknown streets to find myself in magic lands.


I did have an excuse to show up in Europe in the summer of 2006. It was the 30th anniversary meeting of an academic group I have been associated with for many years. International Association of Philosophy and Literature’s conference was titled, “Between Three – Media Arts Politics” and its settings were three cities in three countries – Freiburg, Germany; Strasbourg, France; Basel, Switzerland. There was no reason for me to go straight to the conference’s main site in Freiburg. I took off for Zurich from New York with no real itinerary in mind, except I wanted to see the Black Madonna in Einsiedeln. I had read about her in a book and was curious.


I landed in Zurich, checked into a small hotel, and took off to see the city. European cities have a totally different feel to them; they exude something old and new at the same time. Lake Zurich was enchanting, and the bronze sculpture of Ganymede would make Greek myths come alive, although I was not quite well versed to recognize the tale of Zeus as an eagle abducting the boy. Ah, all the gods and their escapades! But I had to find the train that would bring me to the small village with the Benedictine monastery. I did not know then that it was a momentous journey as it would later lead to the writing of my second book. Our train meandered along the massive lake, and I saw the sculpture of a blue cow that was quite striking against the water and the sky.


That train journey was quiet, streets of Einsiedeln were quiet, and the monastery with the Dark Mother sublime. I had no idea what to expect and the small alley I walked through was nondescript. Suddenly I could see the Abbey on a hill. This old Abbey from the 10th century had a strange ambience. It had survived the Protestant Reformation. I had seen the signs left by the devastation Europe had faced during its days of religious upheaval; Cathedrals destroyed, left to ruin but still retained their magic. Iconoclastic movements do not like human love for beauty and form. Everywhere I went that history was palpable on the faces of its sacred spots. And yet enough of those monuments to both grandeur and monastic wealth remained for posterity to ponder.

There must have been synchronicity in play as I thought of Carl Jung who could think of humankind’s collective unconscious meditating on the lake. A Jung Center was also close by but I did not think of going there. This Abbey’s story is particularly potent for a Kali lover. She is the Lady of the Hermits, who appeared in a dream to Saint Meinard, a 9th century saint. The monument was built on the skull of the slain saint. It is a good place to wander into the nether lands of one’s being. Kneeling in front of the black Mother/Son pair, I became one with millions of pilgrims who visit the site. It was this black stone murti, housed in a small shrine inside the massive monastery, that became a focal point of my curiosity about black sacred icons in the middle of very ‘white’ Europe. But that’s another story, already told in my book and semi-scholarly articulations.


I was now on another train that took me to Bern. I did not know much about the city then. I found myself on the cobbled streets where once the most celebrated scientist of the last century might have walked on his way to the patent office. After all Einstein and Mileva’s apartment was just around the corner. I read somewhere about this famous clock on the tower that the great scientist gazed at as he did his thought experiments that would change the nature of reality. I then stumbled into an alley and found myself close to a bear enclosure in a park and learned that the bear is the symbol of Bern. It is a beautiful city and the Bern Minster was gorgeous. I have an affinity with these sacred enclosures. I did not know then that I was seeking the Divine Mother in all these spaces across the continent.


I can’t remember what made me get off the train on my way to Geneva, where a couple of friends had invited me. It was Interlaken, literally between the lakes, Brienz and Thun. But somehow, I got off on the wrong station and had to retract my steps. There were almost no people at the station. But Swiss are very efficient so getting lost was not a problem. It was also easy to find a big locker to drop off my suitcase right at the train station and take off, light and easy. Twin lakes were ethereal where the bluest of skies meet the emerald water as the sun’s shimmering light made one dizzy. The mountains beyond and the colorful trains beckoned this bewildered traveler.


I was on Jungfraustrasse, a street with a magnificent view of the Swiss Alps peeking from beyond the flags and housetops. It is funny that I did not have a clue where I was going. I often feel I am being led by invisible hands toward spectacular surprises. I began strolling down a street with the most astounding landscape. Watchmaking people of the land had watches all over the shop windows. From one peered a familiar face – Aishwarya Rai, Indian movie star and Miss World selling Swiss watches! I had a feeling this is where shootings for old Indian movies took place. I could almost see a dancing and singing pair sloping down the hill adorned in seventies outfits.

I could see a landscape that was both gorgeous and stark. I recall a book called, Mahaprasthaner Pathe, but these are not the Himalayas. And yet what’s in a name. “It avails not, time nor place –distance avails not.” But these are modern times and there is no need to walk up the cold hillside. Soon I was on a cable car going up the mountain and watching the meadows below with mooing cows. Their bells have a peculiar ring to it and the red band gave them a striking character. Having grown up with cows as a child in India, I felt a sweet affinity with the animal world. I was now sitting on top of the mountain in a cozy restaurant, eating a delicious soup with fresh warm bread. Something about being alone in this alien space sipping warm liquid surrounded by icy mountain is utterly indescribable as the memory has almost faded.


It was time to be on a scenic train that brought me through the spectacular Swiss country side with small villages with churches, colorful houses, and old cemeteries. Much later I would see cemeteries in China, where its Feng Shui demanded mountains and waters to cradle the graves. People on the train seemed lost in their own worlds, except a honeymooning couple from India were singing rather loudly. I was a bit embarrassed for some reason because the hushed silence was broken by what seemed like an utterly incongruous sound. While the mountain top was snowy and cold, the hills with waterfalls were soothing.


I had reached Geneva, most famous for the headquarters of many UN centers, including the World Health Organization where my friend worked. But seeing the statue of Rousseau and the chair of Calvin at the famous church were quite something for an English professor. That chair was perhaps most emblematic of the history of Reformation. It was sparse and stark like the theology of its owner. I was strolling through unknown streets and stepped into a small restaurant and discovered fingerling potatoes covered with melted raclette cheese. It was truly mouthwatering. I could never be a puritan. The entire country is dappled with lakes and mountains. Lake Geneva was another spectacular gem inviting one to just lounge around its edges or bike down the spotlessly clean lanes.


It was time to think about the conference and head toward Freiburg, Germany, where Albert Ludwigs Universitat waited for our scholarly entourage. In Europe, one can slip into utterly different histories and witness quite different human characters within small steps. I can’t remember much about the train journey except a moment when German police boarded the train to check our passports. I am not usually fearful of anything but somehow those uniformed, armed men’s demeanors created alarm. How our minds play tricks! Books can create memories that are only part of the collective. It soon passed, and I safely arrived in this small college town famous for its philosophers. I was eager now to meet with a friend from back home with German ancestry, who was traveling with her daughter to the conference. It turned out to be truly delightful.


We were on the edge of the Black Forest and close to the magnificent, Freiburg Minster. Medieval Europe always fascinates me, while I am as much brainwashed by the Renaissance as anyone in English departments. These churches keep the texture of those potent times etched in their stone artefacts. But this Cathedral was most memorable due to its aromatic bazaar that surrounded it. One could visualize an old world and taste its gastronome. Small shops were set up with sweet wines, honey, meats, and cheeses. But it was the flowers that brought life to the stony splendor of this medieval monument. The interior of the church was imposing; its painting and sculpture had an alien quality that I could not quite comprehend. But the lighted face of the Madonna pointing to her womb caught my eye.

As far as the conference was concerned, IAPL gatherings were always interdisciplinary and a veritable smorgasbord of intellectual, culinary, cultural delight. It was arranged by late Hugh Silverman, president of the association. Since this was the 30th anniversary meeting, it was triply special. Gottfried Boehm, the architect, was the plenary speaker and the city of Freiburg hosted us for a delicious reception, where every kind of wine from the region could be enjoyed.


Later, we as a group were to travel to the Alsace region of France and attend sessions at the University of Strasbourg. I was truly in awe of these places, where Nietzsche, Heidegger, and many other brooding luminaries had wondered about the nature of reality. We also went to Basel to visit the Beyeler Foundation museum and saw the Henri Matisse exhibit. It was truly magnificent, and the plenary lecture delved into the depths of figure, color, and line in concrete terms for neophytes like me. But I was more entranced by the outdoors, the line and color of streets that were friendly to a stranger from another land.

Back in the hotel in Freiburg, I was ready to return home. I became good friends with a scholar from France with whom I shared the room. I learned a lot about French Catholicism. I remember on one of these IAPL bus trips, a young student told me that in the basement of Notre Dame of Paris, there was a Black Madonna. It was time for the conference to end, and we were told the theme of the next conference. It was Layering – textual, visual, spatial, temporal, and we were to meet in Cyprus. In a flash I thought of excavating the layers of the Black Madonna. It is uncanny to think that this mysterious black deity had thrown me on her wayward ways. I returned from my wanderings in three countries, but I had no idea then that I was on a serendipitous trip toward an unknowable future when the Magna Mater of the land would reveal her splendor to a daughter of India.

Dr. Neela Bhattacharya Saxena
is Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Nassau Community College, Garden City, NY. She is author of Absent Mother God of the West: A Kali Lover’s Journey into Christianity and Judaism and In the Beginning is Desire: Tracing Kali’s Footprints in Indian Literature.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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