Sentimental Bridge

Rich Conley

© Copyright 2010 by Rich Conley 

Photo of a man with a wrinkled face.

.This little tale explores the serendipitous delight encountered by unpredictable chance meetings between strangers. This particular event took place in Gruyeres, Switzerland but could have happened anywhere on earth where the planets are aligned suitably

The elderly man possessed wrinkles, many wrinkles, each one seemingly another verse in time. He was alone in the walled village of Gruyeres, Switzerland, engaged in a solitary routine, perhaps of more than a half century or so. He must have known each cobblestone, each tower, each medieval fountain as if encountering silent sentinels greeting him on his daily sojourn. This was powerful to witness. My urge to fathom the unknown, the obscure moments of this gentleman’s life compelled me to approach him. Coincidence surrendered to a fatalistic need to bridge the gap of space and time.

I adjusted the camera, a 35 mm Konica that had accompanied me through six years and forty countries in the merchant marines. It would have been so easy to simply set our 18 month old child, Rickie, alone on that outdoor wooden niche next to the clay flower pot exploding with purple, yellow, and white flowers. Family members and close friends would have paid subsequent visits to the house commenting on “what an adorable picture” of the baby. Something was missing, some dynamic element, some form of human bond beckoning recognition and fruition. This anonymous idler, taking his stroll through the walled village of Gruyeres, needed to form the complement so intuitively sought by me. He needed to be in this photograph with the baby, two strangers whose mutual existence consisted in a casual passing of one another, the wizened, hardened, stoic silent warrior of life, together with the innocent, youthful cherub awaiting his turn. The urge to approach the mystery man grew unbearable. An apparent insignificant moment took on momentous proportions as hormones raced throughout my body uncontrollably. How would the man respond to a request for a picture together with the baby? The villager appeared quite independent, somewhat reclusive, perhaps hardened by the gradual erosion of solitary emotion. I could only speculate yet time was a crucial factor. If I didn’t act now, the man would pass me while walking down the narrow street and pass out of my life (and Rickie’s) forever. At thirty-six years old, I knew that moments such as these passed elusively, as a specter in a tale of imagination. I approached the man excusing myself in French since Gruyeres is located in the western Swiss canton of Fribourg, a French-speaking area. The anonymous man smiled warmly, then proceeded to position himself behind the wooden counter while I placed our eighteen-month old boy, Rickie, next to him. Rickie glanced at the stranger and quickly looked away, as if sensing the unfamiliarity of the moment. As he looked away, his eyes focused on the clay flowerpot to his left. The brightly colored flowers attracted him enough to prompt him to touch one of the stems softly while looking away from the stranger. I took the picture quickly aware that Rickie’s short attention span would forfeit any further opportunity. After thanking the man, I picked Rickie up and headed down the cobblestone main street, inwardly hoping that the picture would come out as I envisioned it. The sentimental bridge had been erected. Its visual reminder would accompany both Rickie and myself for many years. I had truly captured a moment in time.

Yet…there was another time, a time when nineteen counts of Gruyeres ruled from 1080 to 1554. Imagine! 474 years of rule over this fortified mountaintop village, this pastoral Eden. Renaissance homes dating from the 15th-17th centuries lined the main street now as they did then. Most of the castle dates from the late 15th century,. The 16th century home of the famous court jester, Chalamala, still stands to the left of the castle. What was the life of a court jester like in the 16th century? Who was this man really? When a wealthy family from Geneva bought the castle in 1848, they invited the French landscape artist, Jean Baptiste Corot to draw panels in the castle’s drawing room. Corot! His works adorn the greatest art museums in the world. How often did he revel in the beauty of the verdant scenery? In essence, this medieval village had a timeless aura about it, a universal commonality, a legacy shared by us on that sunny day in May, 1989.

As I walked through the stone entrance on my way out, I stepped into another world, still pastoral with rich green pastureland below us yet the parking lot on the hill belied this rural serenity. Modernity beckoned me to a more familiar yet increasingly complex society. Although I was successful in bridging the spatial and time gap between the stranger and my son, my vanity beckoned me for a more lasting, a more visible proof, totally reliant on a science unknown to the counts of Gruyeres. Oh, how I hoped that picture came out as I saw it. Now the trip home.

Three weeks after my return I received a call from the camera store informing me that my slides from Switzerland were ready. My anticipation grew moment by moment, the focus not on the two hundred slides but rather on the one that made the whole trip worth it, the indelible memory of human beings crossing barriers of time and space to form a special union of affection. I rushed to the store, paid for the slides and found an isolated spot from which I examined each picture by holding it up to the light. The process was slow, torturous, and emotionally demanding. Finally I recognized some shots of Gruyeres and held my breath. Then…I saw it. I held it up to the light and scrutinized the color, clarity, and texture of the now famous photograph. It was beautiful! The colors, particularly from the radiant flowers, exploded with an inexpressible joy. The stranger’s face unmasked a lifetime of moments encapsulated in one, the man standing so stoically with his arm around Rickie. Rickie was picking one of the flowers in the pot. I returned immediately to the store, inquired into the price of an 8 x 10 enlargement and moved on. When the enlargement came back, about a week later, I opened the package and fell in love with the picture. Never knowing if I’d ever return to Switzerland, I now possessed a part of Switzerland and her people forever. That was in 1989.

In 1992 good fortune greeted me with two free airline tickets to Europe. My excitement ran unabated while I quickly went through names of desired places….Stockholm, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Vienna. Since I decided to bring my mother (her first trip to Europe) and she knew Rolf, my friend in Switzerland. It seemed appropriate to return to Switzerland, this time during a cold, snowy winter. The thought of the picture didn’t initially enter my mind but after reflecting on places I would want to see, the beautiful mountaintop village of Gruyeres appeared boldly. I called Rolf, then made travel arrangements and told him of my great desire to revisit Gruyeres, of course, the picture would be by my side. Yes, the faint hope of meeting the “Stranger” again, presenting him with the picture and penetrating his anonymity, lured me.

As we made our way up the winding road to the village, a pending sense of drama gripped me. So often, our life is a monotonous routine only occasionally speckled by excitement. What this “excitement” constitutes is meaning or a sense of mission. Was “the Stranger” still alive? After all, he was an older man, not apparently in the best health. If he were alive, could I find him? Would someone in the village recognize and identify him? What would be his reaction? All these questions harried me incessantly. Stepping out of the car on that cold, dry, late afternoon, I was aroused from my reverie abruptly. We had arrived.

How different the village appeared under a blanket of snow. The town was virtually deserted, yet appeared full of yuletide spirit with white lights strewn high above the icy road. Stepping into a gift shop with my mother, Rolf, and his girlfriend (now wife) Yvonne, I softly approached the shopkeeper, greeted her in French and showed her the picture. Would she know our “Stranger?” Her hesitation seemed interminable until I heard her say, “Oui, je le connais. C’est Lully.” Lully? Was he alive? “Mais oui. Il habite en arriere, la bas,” (But yes, he lives in the back, over there). I suddenly presaged a sense of fate at that moment, a sense that perhaps the paths of the Stranger and I were destined to cross. Proceeding up the hill towards the castle, I asked two nuns the whereabouts of the man in the picture and they pointed to an old stone Romanesque tower flanked by a large wooden door. After passing through the door, a young man pointed to the first door to the right. The four of us stopped to look at each other, all intuiting the largess of the moment. I knocked, waited, and was greeted by “The Stranger.” He was clad in teeshirt, had no hat, and a cigarette dangled from his lips. I immediately explained who we were and why we had come, showing him the picture. A man of little emotion, he looked at the photograph, probably disbelieving that a tourist would ask him to take a picture with a child, then return three years later to a small, remote mountaintop village of 1,000 people, to present the picture as a gift. Everyone in the room yielded to the overpowering emotion of the encounter.

The “Stranger” emerged from anonymity, telling us his name, Louis Rimes, nicknamed Lully. We put our arms around each other, spoke about the bountiful joy of strangers forging ties in the world by reaching out to one another. My mother stood crying while Rolf and Yvonne smiled proudly. Lully had lived in Gruyeres all his life and had been making his daily walk up and down the hill since his teenage years.

My life took on a special meaning that cold winter evening in western Switzerland. It restored any questioned faith in mankind’s humanity. We all make a difference, perhaps not everyday the way we’d like to but free will pushes us toward activity and that activity carries out either positive or negative action. Lives are changed by these sometimes imperceptible nuances. I have not heard from Lully since 1992. He might have passed on, forgotten, maybe abandoned in obscurity. He was living alone with no immediate family. I know I’ll never see him again in this life yet our sentimental bridge has already forged an unwavering and enduring spiritual union that has enriched and has provided endless inspiration to those who share in its inherent beauty. The Counts of Gruyeres, 500 years ago, would’ve been proud of our special legacy.

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