In the Shadow of Geneva Eating Dry Bread

The baby, 10 weeks old, wriggles around and smiles at nothing. She’s faced away from the windows, always away from the windows. The snow outside might blind her, or that’s what they say. A Clara Haskil sonata plays on repeat. I only know because I Shazamed it, and I only Shazamed it because Malka is in the other room pumping, “like a cow.”

She returns and tells me about a Scandinavian balloon that you insert into your vagina for ten minutes per day for the last month of pregnancy. If you do this, she promises, you won’t need stitches.

Malka is full of advice that I don’t need but want anyway.

We talk about lots of things up there in the mountains: Buchenwald, deviant sex, how Italians sound like roosters when they try to sing lieder. They use too many vocal effects, apparently. Or, as Malka says, “lots of cream all over.”

We agree that it would be wise to remember, really remember, just how well audacity usually works out for us. I never feel more powerful than when I walk into a fancy restaurant, avoid eye contact with the hostess, beeline it to the bathroom to pee, and then leave.

“I never do a queue,” Malka says. “I’m known for that.” And then: “If you park in front of the door of the nightclub in your little Fiat or what do I know, they will never give you a fine.” She bounces the baby. “But you must park right in front of the door or else it will never work.”

Malka speaks French; her husband, an opera singer, speaks German. But together they speak English. Sort of.

The last time I was up here was two years ago, just after Christmas. Malka had advised against sticking around for New Year’s. “You can of course stay longer,” she said, “but I wouldn’t if I were you because it will only be me in the shadow of Geneva eating dry bread.”

The week before I arrive, it’s reported that Russian-born, Zurich-dwelling Swiss billionaire Margarita Louis-Dreyfus, 53, is pregnant with twins. I mention this to a friend back in New York. “I wish I had lots of money,” she says. “You can literally do anything!”

The baby cries, and so Malka lifts her like a bag of flour and begins to sway and sing a lullaby about an equestrian who falls into a ditch and is eaten by ravens.

“I would throw myself in front of a truck to protect this thing who I don’t even know and who will grow up to say ‘Shut up mother’ and put me in a home.” She laughs. “The instinct is incredible.”

The baby falls asleep, and Malka says, “thanks God.”

Later in the day, while they’re both half-awake on the couch, I curl up next to them and inhale the baby’s smell.

Malka looks at us. “It’s only old people who stink,” she says. “And that’s why we leave them rotting in corners.”

Malka’s wedding took place a year ago on the other side of the country, the German part, in a fin de siècle tuberculosis sanatorium turned luxury hotel accessed exclusively by foot or funicular.

At the end of the weekend, I packed up my luggage and headed to the cable station. The gondolas left every thirty minutes, on the half hour. At 9:30 AM the attendant shook her head apologetically. “You are late,” she said. “It left ten seconds ago.”

Fascist or the height of civilization?

“The last witch was burned about one second ago in Switzerland,” Malka says. “I should look it up. It is such a primitive country. Fondue? That is the most complex dish we have.”

Malka’s husband, who grew up in Leipzig, is the true cook of the household. “He can see a piece of flesh and recognize if it is good or not good or blah blah blah,” Malka says. “In fact he was once fat. When the wall fell and he could suddenly have all the Coca-Cola he wanted.”

He taught a class in Paris recently. “He had the impression there were lepers there,” Malka recounts. I give her a skeptical look. “It’s dirty there suddenly; nothing works. There’s really a misery going on there at the moment.”

Geneva, meanwhile, is trash-free. The signs are for banks and chocolate and watches and that’s it.

Malka told me she was pregnant over dinner in New York last May. She was in town for less than twenty-four hours. I tried to order us a bottle of wine, but she grabbed my wrist and said, “Alice, it is possible that there is a dick growing inside of me.”

I squealed, ordered the wine anyway, and began asking lots of questions.

She was nearing the end of her first trimester at this point and eating skittishly.

The menu came and we consulted it. Malka looked troubled. “I see a lentil now, and I have the impression that I would rather die.”

I took the subway home, elated, and searched her name in my inbox. The previous year, in the two months between my wedding and hers, she had written me the following email:

How come no one told me how tragic it is to organize a wedding? Why do people inflict themselves catastrophic scenarios like this for free? I really don’t understand. Alice, do you think you could bring me back some of these stickers to put on my breast in order to hide them under my transparent dress? And how is it afterwards? Can one finally get back to normal and enjoy a happy life? Or does one get immediately pregnant? Are you pregnant?

“No,” I answered. Then teasing her, “thanks God.”

Of her pregnancy, Malka said: “I am so boring these days it’s really not funny” and also that she was “developing obsessions with some pianists.” They were all pedophiles, she noted, and her energy was low. “A phase probably,” she emailed. I didn’t know whether she was referring to the lethargy or the musicians.

Later, she elaborated on her condition. “My brain functions like a pierced sponge bag,” she wrote. “I look left when cars are coming from right, put my toothpastes in the fridge, forget lunches scheduled with friends. It’s becoming worse and worse and worse.” She worried it wouldn’t go away. “I had no idea that besides destroying your figure, pregnancy also slaughtered your brain into pieces.”

We drive twenty minutes outside the city to a farm where, until only a few months ago, Malka kept a horse.

She used to take Max out twice per week—ride him, clean him, pay for a percentage of his oats. She warns me that Max “is not a very pretty horse” and then adds, “Nor a very intelligence horse.” She pauses. “In fact, maybe he is not a good horse at all. But he is peaceful, unlike the last one who was so violent. Max, if there is an explosion, he will just stand still.”

I rode horses as a kid, and I wonder aloud if I shouldn’t start up again when I go home to visit my parents in California. Malka thinks this is a bad idea. “A horse that is ridden by too many people is no longer a horse,” she says. “He loses all sensibility.”

We muck about in some snowy grass and talk about her great-uncle’s self-published book, “which has a humor that not a lot of these Holocaust books have” and about the virtues of fur-lined boots (“they will change your life”). We only have an hour until the baby needs to be fed, until Malka will begin leaking milk.

On the way home from the farm, we pass a pasture filled with hogs. “Ah, pigs!” she exclaims. “This is very rare. These are luxury pigs.”

“Luxury pigs?” I ask.

“Yes, because they are outdoors. Pigs will ruin your lawn, deeply. More than sheep. Do you like pigs? I love pigs.”

We are making good time, and chances are high that Malka’s shirt will remain dry. This idea of body as instrument appeals to me deeply. Obvious utility, unignorable cause and effect, et cetera. I didn’t even realize my monthly stomachaches were period cramps until I was 26.

The day before I go home, we take a walk through the park. There is a cluster of toddlers on a small knoll, and Malka tells me to wait. I rearrange my scarf around the baby’s tiny body, while she counts the children, then the adults. She approves of the ratio. “This is exactly what this child needs,” Malka says. “A crèche is much healthier than a nanny. There she will catch all the sicknesses and learn to fight.”

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