More than a decade ago, I was an active member of an online forum with a focus on the cars. One day, a new member joined the group. He said he was from a town called Annecy in France, not far from the Swiss border.
Over several months and years, we shared a number of online discussions together. He impressed me as a person with an active intellect, an inquiring mind and a ready wit. We started e-mailing each other about events in our lives ranging from the majestic to the mundane.
My First Visit To Annecy
In 2009, I decided I wanted to visit Europe, particularly Tuscany and the Alps. As fate would have it, flights from Boston to Geneva were less expensive than to other European cities. I mentioned this to Alex and he immediately got back to me and invited me to stay with him. I thought this was an extraordinary offer, since we only knew each other from our online conversations. It’s fair to say that Alex was taking a risk, since he knew nothing about me at all.
A few months later, I emerged from Customs at the Geneva airport and was greeted by a tall, red headed fellow sporting a big smile. I would soon learn that smile was as much a part of Alex as his name.
Alex had taken the day out of work so he could take me on a tour of Lake Geneva. We drove up the western shore, stopped to eat grapes ripening in the sun, saw the monument to Freddie Mercury in Montreux and explored an Alpine village at the base of the Matterhorn. All the while, Alex chatted amiably in excellent English while I struggled to string together a few basic phrases in French left over from my high school days.
In the next few days, we took a boat tour of Lake Annecy and explored the old part of the city, the center of a former French dukedom before Napoleon united the country. We ate tartiflette, a version of potatos au gratin quite popular in the area. We saw a film crew from Poland making a TV commercial for Chinese tourists.
I even got to spend time with his parents, Patricia and Jean Claude, who welcomed me into their home as if I were part of the family. The hospitality Alex and his family showed me was beyond extraordinary.
I had arranged to rent a car in Annecy so I could drive to Tuscany. The night before I left, Alex asked if I would like to go out and meet some of his friends. I spent the evening listening to Alex and his friend Kevin playing guitar and belting out old American songs like the theme from the TV show Rawhide! Eventually, I joined in for a few choruses.
It was one of the high points of my trip. I always say that travel is the best education you can get. But not the kind of travel where you stay in swanky hotels or see 10 countries in 7 days from the inside of a bus. It only works if you live in a community for a while, talk to people, hear what’s on their minds, and come to understand their perspective on the world.
A Protest In Annecy
My journey to Tuscany lasted 10 days. Driving back to Annecy, I stayed off the highways so I could drive through the Alps on my way back. What a magnificent day that was! But it never would never have happened if it wasn’t for Alex.
When I got back to Annecy, I found myself smack in the middle of rowdy political protest. Hundreds of union members were marching through the city to express their displeasure with something or other — I never figured out what. But I got to see firsthand how another society treats protest.
In the US, the protesters would have been opposed by a phalanx of police in riot gear. Tear gas and fire hoses would have been used and many, many people arrested. In Annecy, two bored police officers watched over the crowd, hoping the protest would end soon so they could get home to dinner on time.
I was shocked. I lived through the social unrest that gripped America during the Vietnam era and again after 9/11. But here, I was a witness to the idea that governments do not need to be terrified of their citizens. Thanks to Alex, I got to see how citizens can petition for “redress of grievances,” as it says in the Constitution, without getting arrested.
I went back home the next day, after a lovely dinner in the city hosted by Patricia and Jean Claude. Alex and I stayed in touch and hatched a plan two years later to go to the Historic Grand Prix in Monaco. He had never been to a car race and I had an ongoing love affair with old race cars.
The Road To Monaco
In May of 2012, Alex met me again at the Geneva airport. The next day we would drive to Monaco. But not on the highway, which would have been an easy 7 hour trip. Instead, Alex has meticulously planned a route that would take us across some of the highest mountain passes in the Alps, called cols.
We spent the day climbing into the clouds on roads that could hardly be called cart paths. We made videos along the way, in which we can often be heard laughing like fools. We saw scenery few people have ever seen and it took us 13 hours to get to Nice. It was a great day, one of the most cherished journeys of my life. And of course, it was all due to Alex and his willingness to go on an adventure. If not for him, this trip would never have taken place.
We spent the nights in Nice and took the train to Monaco every day. The racing was intense and exciting, with cars from the 20’s and 30’s wiggling and slithering their way around the famous race course at Monaco.
Monday morning, we headed north to Annecy again, picking our way through the Alps once again. Alex taught me how to say epingle, the French word for “hairpin turn” and les lacettes, the series of climbing turns that look like the laces on a boot as they climb up a steep slope.
At one point, we came across a section of road used in the Tour de France. It had slogans spray painted on the pavement, which Alex said were there to give encouragement to riders. Several sections looked to me like they were nearly vertical. Alex’s Opel diesel had trouble negotiating them in first gear. Those bicycle racers have my utmost respect. I wouldn’t even ride down those sections, never mind try to go up them!
I went back home the next day, but not before I encouraged Alex and his family to come visit me and my wife in the US. I felt they had given so much of themselves to make me feel welcome in their country, the least I could do was return the favor.
Last night, Alex’s brother, Patrick, sent me an e-mail telling me Alex had died a few days ago of a massive heart attack. He was playing his guitar and singing with friends when it happened, doing his second most favorite thing.
His first most favorite thing was sliding down the Alps on a monoski, which is a lot like a snowboard except the skier faces downhill instead of across the hill. From October to May, Alex’s Facebook page was filled with pictures of him riding his monoski somewhere in the Alps. Between June and September, it was filled with plans for the coming ski season.
I always assumed that Alex and I would see each other again, and if not, it would be because of my own infirmities, not his. I can’t believe that he is gone so suddenly. We only spent a very tiny percentage of our collective lifetimes together, but he enriched my life immeasurably. I like to think maybe I did the same for him.
I am grateful to Patrick for getting in touch with me, even though the news is so sad. Patrick, please let all of Alex’s family and friends know how much I cared for him and how much I will miss him. A bientôt, mon ami.