Abused in the Alps—Text and Photographs by Natalia Sarkissian


Tonight I’ve Watched

The moon and then
the Pleiades
go down

The night is now
half-gone; youth
goes; I am

In bed alone



Eight a.m. August 13th. I’m sitting outside at a café in Sestriere, a small Alpine town in Piedmont, eighteen kilometers from the French border. The sun shines white at this early hour but the rays are unfettered by clouds or mist. Already the grass on the mountains glows like green flames. The slate in the peaks overhead glints like diamonds. Although chilly at this hour in this 2,000-meter-above-sea-level paradise, soon the temperature will balloon. In the meantime, I zip up my parka.

Down the road, my husband and dog are still asleep at our friend’s place. Further away, on the Ligurian coast, one son visits his friend’s family. In Lombardy, our other son explores the lake district with his girlfriend. Just a few years ago we all vacationed together. Now I’m here at this table, alone, hoping to get some work done. Instead, I reflect on mutability and my reading of the night before.

In her book of collected lectures, Madness, Rack and Honey, Mary Ruefle makes the case that the theme of poetry from all cultures and periods, from Sappho to Wordsworth and beyond, is mutability. In other words, poetry [and by extension, writing], “is about love and death, innocence and experience, praise and lament, the passing of time, appearance and reality, stability and instability; all these marked themes are nothing less—or more—than mutability.” [71] While dissolution and the passage of time are difficult for the imagination to encompass, we have no alternative. As she writes, “mutability offers us no choice at all: we die, it is built into our wiring like those batteries designed for obsolescence.” [72]


I don’t want to be maudlin about mutability while I’m sitting here in this sparkling cleft in this green and blue sphere. I don’t want to think about how my boys have grown and are now off in the world. I don’t want to consider the wrinkle I’ve earned or the fold I’ve gained. I don’t want to recognize that summer dwindles and autumn looms. Nor do I want to ponder the paradox of the mountains themselves: solid yet eroding. I’m late on a translation I’ve contracted to do. I need to think about that.

But while I’m trying to concentrate on translation, a pretty little boy, blond with curls, one who reminds me of my own boys twelve and fourteen years ago comes into focus.

This twenty-first-century cherub looks like he escaped from a Venetian ceiling by Veronese. The boy carries a brioche, a glistening square of focaccia and a pink newspaper—Gazzetta dello Sport—toward a man who sits at a table not far from mine. Juggling three items in his small hands, he bites his lip with the effort. He manages to deliver the brioche and the newspaper to the tabletop but drops the focaccia.

“Ooof,” he says. “Scusa.”

“Che cretino,” I think I hear the man say.  He frowns, picks up the focaccia and blows it off.

The little boy smiles. Because of the smile, I think I’ve misunderstood. Perhaps the father said something like, “che bravino (not a bad job)” or “che sciocchino (silly)”. I hope so, at any rate. It never crosses my mind that the boy’s smile is meant as appeasement.

Because of the smile, I can see that the boy has all his baby teeth. I decide he can’t be more than five. I wonder if the boy will be required to fetch their beverages next, but am relieved when instead he climbs into one of the gleaming steel chairs next to the man’s. He seems too young to be charged with fetching hot drinks.

Soon an athletic woman, presumably the boy’s mother, in a hoodie and short velour shorts approaches with a tray. She sets frothy milk in a glass cup in front of the boy, a tumbler of orange juice in front of the man, a steaming teapot in front of an empty seat that she immediately claims. At this hour, the waitress isn’t yet on duty. This is a do-it yourself café in this mountain-top eyrie.


Read the rest of this essay at Numéro Cinq magazine.


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