Neyruz, Switzerland | Monday, May 2, 2011
I’M SITTING OUTSIDE, on my friends’ patio, looking west toward the setting sun and a lovely green meadow. A small woods, or forest, as my friends call it, is about a quarter of a mile away. It is part of the town’s park. Jean-Maurice and I took the dog for a walk there this morning. El Nino. That’s what the beagle is called. The house is on the edge if a tiny town, a suburb of Fribourg. You can’t see them from the house, but from the edge of the woods, if you stand at the right place, you can see the Alps, far on the horizon. I don’t remember having seen them on my previous two visits here, but it may have been cloudy or foggy. This is the first time I’ve been here in the spring. The other times I was here in late October and early November. The first time I visited here was on my way to Milan, Florence and Venice. The second time was after a visit to Paris.
We had lunch on the patio, a wonderful meal prepared by Jean-Maurice and Isabelle. He grilled some steaks outside and she made the pasta, the salad and grilled the vegetable. The bread came from the local bakery and the wine came from Jean-Maurice’s wine cellar, of which he is very and rightfully proud. And the wines came from his beloved Valais region, south of here – a wide fertile valley created millions of years ago by the Rhone River, which begins not too far from there, as it meandered through the Alps on its way to the Mediterranean.
The Delezes have a small chalet on the mountainside way above the valley. Jean-Maurice was born in that area, before it became a ski resort. I’ve been there both times I’ve visited them and I’m always amazed by just how massive and high the Alps are. Standing on their terrace, you can look down over the valley and you often see small airplanes flying over the Valais, and it is always a bit disconcerting to note that the planes are flying below you!
I HAVE KNOWN Isabelle and Jean-Maurice for about 10 years. I first met Isabelle by mail when I was working in San Marcos for a magazine there but also writing a monthly column for USA TODAY. One column, about growing up Mexican in the U.S. caught the attention of Rogelio Reyes Cannady, who was awaiting execution on Texas’s death row.
(Jean-Maurice just brought me some nice white wine and a plateful of breadsticks, chips and peanuts and other nuts. And here comes Isabelle with the Spanish olives. Friends are good to have, don’t you think?)
Isabelle and Rogelio had been corresponding for several months. They got to know each other through LifeSpark, a European organization that pairs Europeans with death row inmates in the United States. Rogelio sent the column to Isabelle and mentioned that he liked it and that he was interested in learning more about the subject. Isabelle promised to try to find some books for him. She tracked me down and asked if I could recommend some books for Rogelio. She didn’t say so in her letter, but I go the distinct impression that she would be very pleased if I came into contact with Rogelio. And after my recent conversations with Isabelle, I wouldn’t doubt if he specifically asked her to write to me.
I didn’t. Even though I was strongly against the death penalty, and remain so, I really wasn’t interested in getting involved with a death row inmate, so I simply wrote down a list of books and sent them to Isabelle, hoping it would be the last I’d here from her. It was – for a while. Soon after I moved to Washington, I received another letter from her, and this time she didn’t beat around the bush. She really wanted me to become friends with Rogelio, or to at least correspond with him. I resisted it but after thinking about it for a long time, I couldn’t come up with any valid reasons for not at least writing to him once. He wrote back, and so began an almost-10-year relationship that ended about a year ago (May 19) when Texas executed him.
As the letters between Rogelio and me increased in frequency, Isabelle and I also started corresponding. At first it was by regular mail and eventually primarily via email. And we became friends. Very good friends. I quickly became enamored of her generous heart, her passion for service to those behind bars and other outsiders in this game called life, her taste in music and literature and her enormous appetite for adventure, for exploring the new.
Eventually I decided I had to know her in person, so I arranged a side trip here when I was planning my Italian trip, and that’s when I first met Jean-Maurice, who is now retired from the Swiss foreign economic development service, and their two sons, Jean-Baptiste, and Antoine. I saw her in Houston a couple of times, when she went to visit Rogelio in Livingston, about 90 miles north of Houston.
Isabelle is also a most excellent and creative quilter. Her work is amazingly beautiful. A number of years ago I wrote to her during one of my visits to Texas and described a meal by one of my sisters, which included nopalitos (cactus leaves). Within weeks I received in the mail a small quilted square depicting nopales and using some of the words I had used in my letter. And then Isabelle sent something similar to Delfina, my sister. And that was the start of another friendship. Fina wrote to thank Isabelle and Isabelle wrote back and they have been writing to each other ever since. A couple of years ago, during one of Isabelle’s visit to Houston, I drove Isabelle to Crystal City so she could finally meet Fina and my other sisters. It was a lovefest.
So, in many ways, Isabelle and Jean-Maurice are family, and each visit to their home is increasingly special.
I GOT HERE about 7:45 this morning after an overnight journey by train, a new adventure for me. I’ve ridden trains before, but this was the first time that I’ve ever paid to travel in grand style, along with a private sleeping birth, a shower, a full dinner and breakfast in the dining car, etc. We left Barcelona around 7:40 last night. My initial itinerary called for me to get off in Geneva and then take a local train to Fribourg, but when I got on the train, I discovered that the train, with Zurich as its final destination, would actually stop in Fribourg, so I asked a conductor if I could stay on and get off here and he said no problem.
The dinner wasn’t that great. In fact, it was disappointing. The waiter got both my appetizer and dessert wrong, and I made the mistake of ordering stuffed peppers, which turned out to be bland, bland, bland. I was so covetous of the roasted chicken most of the other diners had ordered.
By the time I got back to my cabin, it was about 10:30 and I was tired. I tried to read but soon gave up and went to sleep. I was afraid that I might have problems sleeping on the train, but I slept soundly. I woke up several times when the train stopped, but for the most part, I slept. The best part was that when I got up to go to breakfast, I had no lower-back pain and stiffness, which had been bothering me from the beginning of this trip. I have to sleep on my side otherwise my back will bother me. Unfortunately, most of the hotel beds are very soft and make sleeping on my side difficult, so inevitably I end up sleeping on my back, and I suffer for it in the morning. The pain and stiffness are gone soon after I wake but, but while they are present, they can be, well, a pain.
Riding the train like that was a strange experience. I kept remembering scenes from movies that featured train rides. In particular, the movie “Julia,” with Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda kept popping into my head. I half kept expecting Nazis or other equally evil characters to emerge from dark cabins.