Flea Market Love Letters
Following Footsteps: Switzerland, 1924.
Updated: Nov 13, 2021
In November of 2019 I noticed a pretty nice deal to Switzerland from Dublin, on Black Friday special. In January of 2020 I decided one rainy weekend while researching our trip -- I am a big fan of Google Doc itineraries -- that we would head to Lucerne on the Saturday after our Friday arrival to Zurich and our Sunday return to Dublin. It looked to be about an hour away by train and the vlogs (yes, I watch travel vlogs) captured my interest. The next week I was gifted a bundle of new letters for the collection. This happened mid-week. The next Saturday I sat down with my usual bottle of wine and empty binders to sort the yellowing, tender letters that have now become my responsibility.
I nearly spat the wine onto the letter I was holding when I read "Lucerne, Switzerland" in the corner of the page.
Goosebumps raised on my arms. No way, I thought to myself. A trick of my eyes OR of the wine.
Rarely I have photos accompany letters. I shouldn't say it happens rarely but it happens less than often enough for me to expect it. There were a bundle of about twenty or so black and white photographs in this new collection. I pawed through them and found it -- the Lion of Lucerne.
I texted my mother, the one from whom I've inherited my more spiritual side. And also the one who had procured this particular collection for me. I had no idea, she assured me, but wasn't that a sign?
A month later I was in Switzerland. In my backpack I carried two black and white photos, in a plastic sleeve, in a hard plastic folder. We explored Zurich, feasting on Cheese and bread till we collapsed into the sleep of "woke-up-at-four-am-for-the-cheap-flight" travelers. The next day, the Saturday we arrived in Lucerne and set our path -- me with two photos secreted in my handbag.
First, we went to the Lion. The monument was erected in 1821 and in 2006 made a protected monument by the Swiss. It commemorates an event in which 600 Swiss Guard died in 1789, and was championed by a sole surviving member of the Guard who had not been on duty that fateful day.
Mark Twain reportedly referred to this monument as the "most mournful and meaningful piece of stone in the world". Alice Stocker, in 1924 wrote that: "First of all we went out to the wonderful lion of Lucerne -- a huge sandstone cliff with the most life like carving of a lion in the side of the cliff, cut out of the solid stone. We have been back to it several times, for it is most cool and comfortable in that spot and so wonderful to look upon."
To bring Alice's photo back to the Lion was similar to when I brought the envelope back -- 100 years since it had first arrived -- to Northampton Street.
When Alice visited Lucerne in 1924 with her husband Harry and ten-year old son, Arthur, she was not aware that in five short years Harry would die. This was a grand family vacation to Europe, where the family from New York traveled to Canada, Scotland, England, Amsterdam and Switzerland. But in 1924, Alice did know that she saw Lucerne as: "Lucerne is as beautiful as any place could possibly be, built around the curving shore of the lake with Mt. Pilatius, a huge mountain, on one side, the Rigi on the other and many white mountains in every direction."
I am obliged to agree with the woman who wrote these lines almost one hundred years before me. She was forty-five years old. I can picture her now, with her camera -- maybe a Brownie? -- standing where I stood. Did Arthur and Harry want to move along? Were they indulgent of her hobby to capture things? Or were the photos really Harry's, printed and annotated and bundled off to her parents in North Dakota on the Stocker family's safe return in the Fall of 1924? We'll never know.
But I do know that the Chapel Bridge, or the covered bridge of Lucerne, is as much a photography spot in 2020 as it was in 1924. Dating to the 18th century, this bridge is the oldest covered bridge in Europe. And Alice took a photo of it just like I did.
People who ask me what I do with the letters I collect, are either awed by the stories like this one or 1428 Northampton. They understand that our history is not a linear thing, but a looping web. I had not read any more than Alice's Lucerne letter when we visited Switzerland. I knew only what she saw of where I was standing, not what had shaped her day before or would change her days after. I wanted to follow her footsteps in Lucerne, as closely as one hundred years might allow.