food / travel

Embracing The Sounds Of Silence In A Swiss Abbey

Guests come to the Hauterive Abbey, outside of Fribourg, to get away from it all, take a few days to reflect, and keep quiet. Very very quiet.

Cistercian monks
Cistercian monks
Sylvia Revello

FRIBOURG — Upon arriving at Hauterive Abbey, guests receive a timetable on a small sheet of green paper. Days are organized around prayer — from the vigil, at 4:15 a.m., to the Compline, or Night Prayer, at 7:50 p.m — and through it all, one clear rule applies: silence.

A little intimidated, I enter the stone walls of the church adjoining Hauterive Abbey, in a hilly area outside of Fribourg, in western Switzerland. The first notes from the organ announce the service and the start of a three-day religious retreat.

The idea of a retreat is to take time for oneself, to get away from the frenzy of everyday life. And it's something more and more people are doing — in all kinds of ways — be it a yoga, meditation or even fitness retreat. In its original sense, though, a retreat — by definition a special period of time for withdrawal and deep study — is religious in nature. It is to revitalize oneself through prayer, to receive God's Word.

Monastic life is restrictive in the extreme. But paradoxically, it also provides quite a bit of freedom.

"Come apart into a desert place, and rest a little," Jesus told his disciples.

Freedom to think

The majestic Hauterive Abbey lies nestled between a bend in the Sarine River and an abrupt cliff. Built in the 12th century, it's one of the oldest Cistercian institutions in Romandy, the French-speaking part of Switzerland.

Hauterive Abbey Photo: Own Work

Through its long history, the abbey has known both prosperous periods and decay. And in 1848, in the aftermath of the Sonderbund War, it ceased functioning altogether. The monks didn't return until nearly a century later, in 1939. Now, 22 of them are living here according to the Rule of Saint Benedict, one of the pillars of the Benedictine and Cistercian orders.

Monastic life is restrictive in the extreme. But paradoxically, it also provides quite a bit of freedom. Outside of the services, with singing in French and Latin, guests are free to use their time as they please.

The retreat isn't about altering reality. It's about how we look upon it.

The first morning, I am struck by a strange feeling of emptiness. Alone with myself, away from the daily tumult, the minutes suddenly feel too long. Thoughts I might normally push to the back of mind suddenly take over. But as I sit on the river bank — in the shade of the trees and with no other sound than nature to accompany my reflections — I realize for first time in a long time that I can actually take the time.

"As God did on the seventh day of creation, sometimes we need to take a break. In the Old Testament, Moses crossed the desert to serve God. That moment for rest is marked by the Sabbat," explains the abbot in charge of the community. "A retreat isn't a flight," he adds, in a calm voice. "He who escapes so as not to face reality will find his daily life unchanged when he returns."

The miracle of faith

The retreat, I'm coming to realize, isn't about altering reality. It's about how we look upon it. And as I enter the church for the vespers, I remember this sentence: Silence is the condition of listening.

To be silent inside these stone walls almost feels natural. In the shadowy light, with your eyes half closed, you immerse yourself in the solemnity of the place. But when the evening comes, around the dinner table, the silence sometimes becomes oppressive. Guests gesture to ask for the salt, all the while carefully avoiding the embarrassed looks of the others who came here to find some peace and quiet. Afterward, in the park, we greet each other with a little waving.

Gardens inside the Abbey Photo: Hauterive Abbey's Facebook page

There are a lot of retreaters this weekend, it seems to me. But there are always this many people, the abbot explains. "Some come here to prepare for an event, others to make a decision," he says. "Others still because they're hurting in some way. But the need isn't necessarily clear."

Some, but not all, are believers. Hauterive Abbey welcomes everybody, as long as they respect the location. There is no judgment here, except for the judging we all do to ourselves. As a volunteer takes us to the heart of the cloister, the piety and the devotion become intimidating.

I can't help admiring the miracle of faith, how it pushes people to give their lives to God. Unlike Carthusian monks, Cistercians keep a link to the exterior world. Their door remains open. And anybody is free to retain what they want from this salutary break.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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