12 Feb 2013
“In classical mythology, Pyrene is a princess who gave her name to the Pyrenees. The Greek historian Herodotus says Pyrene is the name of a town in Celtic Europe. According to Silius Italicus, she was the virginal daughter of Bebryx, a king in Mediterranean Gaul by whom the hero Hercules was given hospitality during his quest to steal the cattle of Geryon during his famous Labors. Hercules, characteristically drunk and lustful, violates the sacred code of hospitality and rapes his host’s daughter. Pyrene gives birth to a serpent and runs away to the woods, afraid that her father will be angry. Alone, she pours out her story to the trees, attracting the attention instead of wild beasts who tear her to pieces.
“After his victory over Geryon, Hercules passes through the kingdom of Bebryx again, finding the girl’s lacerated remains. As is often the case in stories of this hero, the sober Hercules responds with heartbroken grief and remorse at the actions of his darker self, and lays Pyrene to rest tenderly, demanding that the surrounding geography join in mourning and preserve her name: “struck by Herculean voice, the mountaintops shudder at the ridges; he kept crying out with a sorrowful noise ‘Pyrene!’ and all the rock-cliffs and wild-beast haunts echo back ‘Pyrene!’ … The mountains hold on to the wept-over name through the ages.” (Wikipedia/ Pyrenees)
I alight on the train platform, the stifling summer heat stirring up billowing heat waves from the afternoon platform pavement. Beyond lies the famed name of Geneva, city of the United Nations and CERN, Jean Calvin, Victorinox knives, and chocolate, now a confusing clash of 16th Century buildings mixed with modern glass and steal, and the lingering sweet odor of over-ripe garbage. Not at all what I expected. Already back at the airport everything had been so badly organized, and no one willing to help, with signs all wrong or non-existent, that it had taken three hours to get to the city center, instead of the twenty minutes the guidebook said it would. Now I can’t find the exit to the station because there are no signs for it. This would be my main experience with Geneva.
But it is only the beginning of the journey. I stay in Geneva only a few days, to get reoriented and to see a place I’ve wanted to visit since I was a child. Then it is on south into France, to the Pyrenées, for a longer, more intimate leg of the journey. It is still far away, but already I can make out the faint calling of the mountains. Perhaps I will find her there, where Hercules left her, broken and betrayed, and all alone. Or perhaps there will finally be peace for her, when I hear the echo of her name, Pyrene. It is a beginning. I have my pack, my shoes, my camera, and my eyes. For a month I want nothing more.
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