I sat on my bunk on the Motor Vessel Olympia, tied to the wharf in Basel Switzerland, while the Rhine river—bloated with springtime floodwater—swept past on its way to Holland. My small stateroom was about the size of a budget hotel room in Tokyo. But the view was better.
An ancient stone bridge spanned the river a hundred yards upstream, with barely enough room under the arches for the river traffic. Along the top of the bridge were bright, colorful flags representing the Swiss cantons. I knew those flags, having learned them years ago, at age twelve when I’d lived in Switzerland. I checked a few to see if I’d forgotten any names, but Swiss canton flags—learned at age twelve—are not the kind of thing one is likely to forget.
Occasionally a long, thin river barge would shoot downstream or (if going the other way) inch forward with painstaking slowness. My window was only about ten feet above water level, and the barges would pass sometimes less than thirty feet away. I found I would need to draw the curtains at night, or when changing clothes, so as to avoid being a spectacle to the barge crews.
Alongside the river were the German-looking buildings endemic to Basel. German Switzerland is more conservative even than Germany, and the architects seemed determined to prove this, utilizing modest spires and gothic arches to accent a style that seems handed down from the 14th century.
I’d slept late that morning, having arrived yesterday afternoon. My body doesn’t suffer jet-lag when I fly westbound. Eastbound is another story. Hoping to minimize the effect I’d taken two sleeping pills after boarding the flight to Zurich. Now I was sitting on my bed in Basel, staring at the Swiss francs in my billfold. For the life of me I could not remember how I’d obtained those francs. In fact, I could remember almost nothing at all from yesterday. Somehow I had left the plane, passed through immigration, changed my dollars at a bank window, found my way to the train station, boarded a train for Basel, and apparently taken a cab to the Olympia. I never drink alcohol on international flights, but those two sleeping pills must have completely erased my short term memory.
More recent memory was clearer. I’d encountered Maurice Arfi at the boat’s check-in desk on my way to the Basel show late yesterday afternoon. That had been fortunate, as he was heading that way, and was able to give me my show credentials and demonstrate where one caught the streetcar and where one got off.
I’d met Maurice at the Northeast Jewelry Show in New York last October. His line of work was organizing small, business-related tours, and his Basel tour had been sponsored loosely by National Jeweler magazine. It’s simply not possible to find a room in Basel during the show, so when I’d decided to come, I’d called Maurice. Over a dozen river cruise-boats are brought in to accommodate the show attendees, virtually draining the Rhine of its cruise capacity. These are modest vessels, perhaps 125′ in length and about 20′ wide. They have two decks, tiny accommodations, a dining room, and a cocktail lounge. Maurice found me a room on one of these, the same vessel where the entire National Jeweler contingent was staying, so at least I’d be among friends.
But it didn’t turn out that way. All my National Jeweler friends were there, but—with the exception of one breakfast with the entire group—I almost never saw them. National Jeweler publishes a daily “show newspaper” at Basel, and the reporters and editors were working 18 to 20 hour days to make it happen. Fred Michmerhuisen, the production editor, was virtually imprisoned at the print shop which served as their headquarters. Nancy Pier Sindt and Donna Frischnect, the fashion editors, were being run ragged trying to get a handle on the “essence” of the show. And Marcia Riley, the managing editor, was as stressed out as a good managing editor should be.
Lynn Diamond, editor-in-chief, and my closest friend at National Jeweler, was slightly above the hurly burly, but she had her own responsibilities: making the social rounds and seeing and being seen at the various after-show parties. Lynn realized some time ago that I needed a mentor, and she has tried to keep me under her wing as much as possible in the last year. But it was difficult in Basel. The show—until recently the largest jewelry show in the world—is spread out among a dozen buildings, all thankfully adjacent. But it is still easy to get lost. The parties and social events were sprinkled about both geographically and chronologically, and Lynn always seemed to be rushing off to one or just returning from another.
“You should have registered as ‘press’,” she told me admonishingly. “When you’re press you automatically get invited to everything.”
I accompanied her whenever I could. At the Antwerp Diamond Council party she made sure I was introduced to all the important people, including the head of Australia’s Argyle Mines. At another event she introduced me to Walter Ife, head of the Diamond Promotion Service.
I’d been surprised in Basel to find that DeBeers maintained a booth under their own name: DeBeers. In the U.S. we are accustomed to never seeing the DeBeers name per se. Because they are a monopoly, and totally in violation of U.S. anti-trust laws, no DeBeers director or officer can even set foot in the U.S. without being arrested. As a result, all of DeBeers’ activities in America are funneled through an advertising agency, N.W. Ayer in New York. This company funds an organization called “Diamond Promotion Service,” which has—as its strategic objective—helping jewelers sell more diamonds. It is N.W. Ayer which creates and runs the “shadow ads” promoting diamonds on U.S. television. I had worked diligently over the last eighteen months trying to develop contacts within the DPS and had done fairly well working my way up the ladder. But the top rung had always eluded me. Walter Ife, head of the organization, was merely a name. I’d never been able to meet him. Yet over cocktails in Basel we hit it off quite well.
“Ah, you’re Polygon. Yes, we’ve done quite a bit of talking about you recently. Sorry we’ve never met before. I’d really like to sit down and figure out how we can work together.”
We arranged to meet the following month at the Las Vegas show and plan some joint activities for the coming year. I figured that that one contact was probably worth the trip to Switzerland, but it seemed odd I was meeting primarily Americans, not Europeans, in Basel.
My other mentor at the show was Bill Boyajian, president of the GIA. Bill is one of the friendliest people on the planet, but one senses that it is largely a friendliness borne of political expediency. Bill and the GIA are political creatures, acutely aware of their non-profit status and unique position in the industry. Bill occasionally reminds me of Laura DeWild, the former Miss Colorado and current Pearl Princess. Laura and Bill are the only two people I know who can be carrying on a conversation with person “A”, shaking hands with person “B”, and smiling appreciatively at person “C” all at the same time. No doubt it is an acquired skill, but they pull it off brilliantly.
Bill, also, did what he could to make sure I met the right people, including Susan Johnson, head of the GIA Alumni association, and James Shigley, editor of Gems & Gemology magazine. Susan and I arranged to start up a private network for her association on Polygon, and the G&G editor and I worked out a plan for sending G&G articles over Polygon, and also—perhaps—inserting a Polygon subscription card in G&G magazine itself. Either of those two contacts, I judged, would also have been worth the trip to Basel.
Mostly my time at the show consisted of hanging out at the National Jeweler booth, the GIA booth, or the JCK booth. Charles Bond, publisher of JCK and the main person I’d gone to Basel to meet, was not there. He was going to be arriving the day before I was due to leave I discovered. But the JCK group was as friendly as everyone else. If the purpose of the trip was to cement contacts, I was succeeding. But again, they were U.S. contacts, not Europeans. At one point I had a full hour of uninterrupted time with Lee Lawrence, sales manager and number three person at JCK. Lee is also the man unfortunate enough to be charged with assigning the booth space at the JCK show, the show that last year surpassed Basel as the largest jewelry show in the world.
Everyone and their dog is trying to get a booth at the JCK show, and booths simply aren’t available. Everyone who has a booth is trying to get a bigger booth, or a better booth. Lee decides. 1995 will represent the first year Polygon will have its own booth at the show, and it’s a good booth, in a good location. I’d already made sure Lee knew I appreciated it.
“Boy, the pressure on you must be unreal,” I said.
Lee told me story after story of various bribes and near-bribes he’s been offered. “Someone will call up and say ‘OK, how many ads do I have to take out in JCK to get a booth? Just tell me the amount of money, and where to send the check.'”
“One time,” he said “a jewelry wholesaler who also owned a hotel in Las Vegas had just been notified he was going to receive a booth. The man called me to express his thanks, and wanted to let me know that I could have the finest suite in his hotel, for the whole show, at no charge. Everything included. Even room service. I said ‘thanks, but I really can’t accept that. You know, what I would appreciate are some tips on how to play the blackjack tables!’ I said that kind of as a joke, like maybe he could give me some tips. So the guy says ‘Tell you what, come to the hotel, check in with the floor manager. I’ll tell him to expect you. I’ll stake you to your first two hours at the blackjack table. Anything you make is yours. Anything you lose, don’t worry about it. It’s on me. But after two hours, you’re on your own!’ He was serious! Like, I’m sure! You just can’t believe what I’ve been offered for booth space at this show!”
I did meet Charlie for half an hour the morning I was due to leave, but he was rushing off to a meeting with Walter Ife, and really wasn’t able to introduce me to anyone in the time available.
Nonetheless, overall I had “seen and been seen,” had made some valuable contacts, and had re-vitalized some earlier ones. It was also a curiously luxurious experience to be able to walk around and chat with people somewhat randomly, without having to man my own booth.
By the time I’d left I’d seen most of the show. It was very different from most jewelry shows in that they didn’t have booths per se, they had fortresses. At most shows there is a display counter at the front of each booth, and one or more smiling sales people is there to greet you and show you their merchandise. At Basel each booth occupies about one city block. It is closed to the outside world, and a receptionist (I’m not joking) takes your name and then disappears into the labyrinth to see if the person you’re seeking is able to see you. A buyer visits these booths almost solely “by appointment.” One suspects I use the word ‘fortress’ by way of exaggeration, but the Tiffany’s booth was three stories tall, and made of solid marble. A receptionist guarded the entrance. I doubt if it could have been taken by frontal assault, although a deliberate siege might have succeeded, given time.
Twice in Basel I was faced with an evening alone, that is, no parties to attend, and I would head out into the town in search of a restaurant. I was apprehensive at first. This was German Switzerland, after all, not French Switzerland. Should I try to speak in French? Or in English? It soon became obvious that the second language in Basel was very much French. The menus all had French sub-titles, and after I got over my initial caution, I found I could merely ignore that this was German Switzerland and I could speak French to everyone: cab drivers, waitresses, conductors on the street cars, etc. It seemed rude to assume they could speak French, but I got over that. They all could, and it wasn’t an insult to assume so. Only occasionally would someone—recognizing my American accent—answer me in English, but even this was probably more their pride in showing they could speak English, not a deliberate insult to my French. Or so I hoped.
Once Lynn Diamond and I were at her booth when a French speaking person came up, with a question about where a map of the show could be found. Lynn, who knew a little high school French, tried to explain that there was a map stand “pres de la porte” (near the door). The person looked confused. I chipped in: “Les cartes de l’expo se trouve au pres de la porte.”
“Merci!” she said, and walked briskly away.
“So, you speak French?” asked Lynn.
“I used to. It comes back at odd moments.”
“How come you said ‘au pres,’? Isn’t it just ‘pres’? Doesn’t ‘pres’ mean ‘near’?”
“Yeah, pres does mean near. But the way you’d phrase it in French is ‘au pres.’ Pres by itself just doesn’t sound right, don’t you think?”
“Who knows?” said Lynn. “I’ve got to get to my next meeting!”
But I felt I’d scored a small verbal victory, nonetheless. And I also felt oddly comfited by the fact that ‘au pres’ did sound right, while ‘pres’ did not. I had learned French to some extent as one learns English, by a wide amount of conversational usage. I trusted my instincts to know proper syntax, but I could not have explained it, anymore than I could have explained it in English. I had had virtually no chance to use French anytime in the last ten years, and almost no chance anytime in the last thirty years. I had nearly convinced myself that I could not do much more than say Good morning or Thank You. My tiny vocabulary of Japanese had actually seemed more comfortable for me than French. But then a complete sentence like “Les cartes de l’expo se trouve au pres de la porte,” had rolled off my tongue with almost no conscious thought, and I realized how much must still lie dormant. I certainly could not have said such a thing in Japanese.
This was not an academic concern, for the whole time I’d been in Basel I’d been looking forward to Sunday when I could escape the show and head out on my own for three gloriously independent days of uninterrupted train travel around Switzerland. I would need to use a lot of French during those days, I suspected, and I was glad to know that at least some of it was still there.
My love affair with Swiss trains had begun during the year I’d lived in Blonay, a small mountain village in French Switzerland, near Lake Geneva. I had become infatuated with the independence that Swiss railways could impart to a twelve year old. The C.E.V. cog railway stopped at Tusinge, only 100 yards from our chalet. From there one could connect down to Blonay itself, and then to Vevey on the shore of the lake. From Vevey trains left for Lausanne, Vallorbe, Dijon, Paris, and even London. In Lausanne one could change to trains for Geneva, Bern, Zurich, Basel, and Munich. But in the other direction the trains were heading for even more exotic locales. Eastbound trains left Vevey for Montreux, Martigny, Sion, Brig, Domadossala, Milan, Verona, and Venice. Some of the expresses even went so far as Rome and Naples if they were heading south. And the most famous train of all, the Orient Express, stopped in Montreux on its way to Trieste, Belgrade, Sofia, and Istanbul. It is not hard to understand why a twelve year old might fall in love with Swiss trains.
I had returned to Switzerland briefly in 1967 with my sister Beth, having taken the Orient Express from Istanbul to Montreux. But we’d been in transit, and had been able to stay less than 24 hours. Clouds had obscured almost all the mountains. In 1978 I’d had reason to go to Geneva on business, and had managed to steal 10 hours at the end of that trip for a quick visit to my old stomping ground on the eastern end of lake Geneva. Much more recently in my memory was my honeymoon, over twelve years ago now. Derry and I had come straight to Montreux and had toured the area before heading up into the canton of the Valais to Zermatt, and then back to Martigny, Diablerets, Gstaad, Chateux D’Oeux, and Villeneuve. We’d had almost six days in Switzerland, but that had been my last visit.
Until now. Now was different. This time I was alone. I could go wherever I wanted. Do whatever I desired. Stay wherever I wished. Eat wherever I chose. And I had that most important possession of all: a Swiss railway card. Every train in the country was free, as was every postal bus, every lake steamer, even every streetcar. And I knew the trains, the postal buses, the lake steamers, and almost every streetcar like the back of my hand. This was a kind of freedom rarely tasted in modern life, and the whole time I was in Basel I thirsted for it inexpressibly.
By Sunday morning I had met as many people as it seemed likely I was going to meet. I had spent as much time as was politically appropriate with Charles Bond, Bill Boyajian, and the others. I had visited every booth I had even a remote chance of getting in. It was time to leave.
Travel packs are one of the great inventions of modern society, ranking alongside digital calculators and pre-made lasagna. It is a mystery to me why other forms of luggage still persist, especially those strange contraptions with miniature wheels that are programmed to flip over when crossing a street or boarding an escalator. A travel pack goes right on one’s back, and a back is so efficient at carrying payload that the weight is nearly unnoticeable.
By querying the Dutch hotel clerk on the boat I had discovered which trolley would take me to the train station, and of course it was free with my railway pass. I walked up to the sedate and business-like Basel rail station, remembering that I knew Swiss trains like the back of my hand, and that I’d easily gone form Zurich to Basel a few days earlier with no conscious thought. But this time I was conscious. As I entered that vast open building and looked around, trying to tap some instinctive reserve, I realized that I had absolutely no idea where to go. Worse, all the signs were in German!
How had I managed to do all this as a twelve year old? How had I managed to do it several days ago on sleeping pills? I had no clue.
Near the ticket windows were little stands, each containing several dozen train schedules. But, again, they were in German. There was an information desk, but a line at least 30 minutes long extended out from it. And was I desperate enough to consult an information clerk? Not quite.
As I wandered around, wondering what to do, the thought struck me that all this would be simpler if I knew where I wanted to go. I hadn’t really decided. So I gave the matter some thought and reasoned that at the very least I had to visit the place I used to live, the area at the eastern end of Lake Geneva. In short, my 3-day travel frenzy had to begin in Montreux. Montreux was in extreme southwest Switzerland and I was in the extreme north. Given that Switzerland is only one fourth the size of Iowa, this meant I was still pretty close. But it would take some combination of trains to get there.
I finally admitted that I didn’t know Swiss trains all that well anymore. It had been thirty years. No doubt they’d changed slightly. And it was only the ones within a small radius of Lake Geneva that I had ever known intimately. Here I was in Basel. Yet I could take an educated guess. Probably the way to get where I wanted to go was to take a train to Lausanne. And then from Lausanne another train would get me to Montreux.
At the entrance of the station I’d noticed a bright yellow signboard with a printed schedule of trains on it. Perhaps it could be deciphered. I found it again and studied it intently. Nothing was really in German, because it consisted of basically an x-y graph: destination cities, departure times, and track numbers. According to this chart, a train left for Geneva in eight minutes.
I could not imagine a train being able to go from Basel to Geneva without passing through Lausanne, so this was obviously the train I wanted. Track twelve. I rushed to track twelve, purchasing a submarine sandwich and soda on the way. A shiny CFF-SBB Swiss train was waiting for me. “C’est le train pour Lausanne?” I asked the conductor, and he nodded. I hopped aboard, found a seat, and relaxed.
While I waited for departure I opened my pack and pulled out several dozen pages, stapled together, which had been ripped out of my “Cook’s Continental Timetable,” the Bible for European train travelers. These were the pages covering Swiss trains. I’d purchased this book in 1988, for a trip to Finland, Estonia, and Russia, and it had served me well. But now it was seven years out of date, which is to say it was worthless. I’d brought it only because it could serve to remind me where the various trains actually went. I opened up the pages to the section involving Southbound trains from Basel. Ah, here we were. A map of Switzerland was also provided, showing the rail lines. I studied it intently.
Yes, this made sense. With a few exceptions, major express trains from Basel heading south went to Bern, and then they split. Some went on to Lausanne and Geneva. Others turned southeast to Thun, Spiez, Interlaken, and over the Bernese Oberland mountains via the Loetschberg pass to Brig. Yes, yes. This was obvious, now that I thought about it. Of course I hadn’t thought about it for thirty years, but that was irrelevant.
The train eased forwards and soon was rolling past the Basel suburbs and into the Swiss countryside. It is not true that Switzerland has not changed in 30 years. IT has, but only in one respect. Swiss cities have fallen victim to that most horrible cancer of modern life: “graffiti taggers.” Taggers are those who spray paint their nicknames in kind of a bulbous, fetid script on every public space they can find, preferably without being caught. This latter condition makes out-of-the way spots more attractive: under bridges, near train tracks, in less-frequented areas, etc. Graffiti tagging has caught on big time in Switzerland and my heart ached to see it. The life has nearly been choked out of New York and the East Coast by the taggers. Now the infection had spread horribly to Europe.
Yet as the train gathered speed, through the misty, rainy outskirts of Basel the graffiti finally thinned and gave way to that most resilient of Swiss institutions: the cow.
Swiss cows always come in a light brown color, always have a large Swiss bell hung from their necks with a leather strap, and always lope off semi-seriously (right, like they’re really scared…) whenever a train comes near them. As our train rolled through the verdant countryside and occasionally came upon cows, the cows would always run away with something less than full panic, and then come to a halt more or less out of train-range. It soothed my soul, on some level, to see that Swiss cows had not changed. And there was not a speck of graffiti on any of them.
With Basel behind us I waited for the real Switzerland to appear. I wasn’t quite sure what the real Switzerland was anymore, it had been so long. Yet so far it was pleasant enough. The train was not crowded. The fields and hills and farmlands were gently soothing as we clickety-clacked past them. And it’s simply impossible to not be relaxed while riding a Swiss train in Switzerland.
After ninety minutes of this we arrived at Berne, the capital. Ninety minutes gives one plenty of time to make decisions. I had decided not to get to Montreux by way of Lausanne. That would have been too easy. I’d decided to get to Montreux via Spiez, Zweiseman, and the Montreux-Oberland-Bernois railway. One might liken this to the difference between arriving at a wedding reception by car, versus arriving by parachute, for the M.O.B. crosses over high mountains and descends into Montreux at the last minute, more or less from out of the sky.
And the scenery is among the most spectacular in Switzerland. Some years ago I’d recorded a PBS program detailing this very train trip, and of course when I’d lived here I’d taken the M.O.B. train many times. The M.O.B. was my turf. According to the Cook’s Timetable, going this route would add three hours to the trip. But I wasn’t in a hurry.
That settled, I made sure I was on the right car so that when the train split, I was headed for Spiez, not Geneva.
45 minutes after leaving Berne I glanced out the windows at the increasingly overcast and cloudy sky, and saw something that looked like snow-capped mountains in the distance. But of course it wasn’t really mountains. It was only cloud. Given the perspective, if what I was seeing had been mountains it would have implied mountains of unbelievable height and majesty. No, these were only white, wispy clouds, high—very high—in the sky.
The train rolled on. Wait a minute. The clouds weren’t moving and changing position as they should have. And then it hit me. These weren’t clouds at all. I was looking at the Swiss Alps.
Had I forgotten just how incredible they were? Had I lived too long among the wimpy mountains of central Colorado? The answer could only be yes. The majestic 14,000 foot peaks of the continental divide in Colorado were mere foothills compared to the Swiss Alps, not in elevation but in appearance. This was horribly depressing. For sometime I had worked to arrange my life so as to live in Colorado, primarily because of the mountains. And I had succeeded. Yet what had I done? I did not live among mountains! I lived on slight variations of the Great Plains! I sat back in my seat on the train and let the awesomeness of the scenery wash over me, my emotions alternating between the greenest of envy to the more sublime trance-like appreciation of the earth sculpted into some of its most spectacular shapes.
The train arrived at Thun, a town I had—as best I could recollect— never been to before. The lake at Thun is called, in German, the Thunersee. It is a respectable lake, with spectacular scenery behind it, but it is much smaller than Lake Geneva. The Thunersee ends, a stretch of land ensues, and then almost immediately there is the Ogdensee: a similar-sized lake going off in the other direction. Between these two lakes is the very pleasant town of Interlaken, meaning “Between the Lakes.” Interlaken has become famous, perhaps because of its well-known namesake in the U.S., the music school. Just before one arrives at Interlaken is the town of Spiez, and as the train pulled to a stop I hopped off. The Loetschberg express rolled on towards Brig.
The momentary panic I’d felt in Basel had passed. Some psychic ability to navigate had clicked back into position and I was as completely comfortable with Swiss train as I’d been at age twelve. I discovered the southbound train to Zweisseman, boarded it, and soon found myself moving inexorably into those not-quite-believable mountains I’d seen from a distance. Switzerland, like Oregon, is an area which receives more than its share of rainfall, and today was no exception. The mountain peaks could only be glimpsed within the context of a gray overcast which sporadically and reluctantly permitted one to view more than the sides of the lush pine-covered valleys. A light rain was falling as I rushed from the train at Zweisseman to the M.O.B. line itself, and collapsed thankfully in a car that seemed, oddly , to have me as its only passenger. Soon we were rolling through the Bernese Oberland area of Switzerland, a name that might be translated loosely as the “high country near Berne.”
One tires of overworn adjectives such as quaint, cute, and spectacular, all of which have been applied successfully to the chalets and fields and mountains of central Switzerland. I will not ask them to bear their burden yet again. For me it was a journey of nostalgia, and I hate nostalgia. Nostalgia is that bitter-sweet emotion that says: “Yes, once this was your life, but now you are older, and this will never be your life again.” Who needs such reminders? I despised myself for needing and wanting to return to this part of Switzerland. Recently I had found great pleasure in exploring unknown frontiers such as Venezuela, Central America, Japan, and China. Switzerland was a fantasy land of my childhood, and it was disconcerting—and not necessarily pleasant— to be dropped back into it so precipitously and so temporarily. In a word: so cruelly. Yet I had come here of my own free will. We are all drawn, like moths to the flame, to anything which will rekindle the memories of our youth. It is a curse of the human psyche, a masochistic urge we seem unable to outgrow.
The familiar towns now began appearing: Gstaad, Montbovon, Chateau d’Oex, the tunnel, and then, most poignant of all: Les Avants. An odd phenomenon occurred between Gstaad and Montbovon. The train conductor switched out of German and began announcing station stops in French. As we left Gstaad we were entering French-speaking Switzerland. And now, in Les Avants, I was even back in my old neighborhood. I knew what sites would tug on my heartstrings next: places I had not given a moment’s thought to for many years: Chamby, Fountainivent, Territet, and finally—here it came—Montreux itself. The train had reached its destination.
It was about six thirty in the evening, and there was still plenty of light. I stepped onto the platform and walked down the steps and along the corridor under the track towards the exit.
There is a smell that accompanies the Montreux train station. Psychologists tell us that the sense of smell is one of the most acute in human experience. Visions of the past can be brought forth uncannily by a the sense of smell. I had noticed this in 1967. Montreux station smelled the same, and it took me back to an earlier day. I had noticed it in 1978. And I had noticed it during my honeymoon in 1982. Montreux station was still Montreux station. I braced myself for it now, in 1995.
But it wasn’t there! Thank God. I was free of that part of the nostalgia night mare, at least. This was only a train station. This was not, repeat Not, a portal to my childhood. This was not yet another artifact imbued with the missing to make me feel my age. Silly as it sounds, I sniffed all over the station and found nothing. Perhaps it had been washed.
OK, now what? I slung my backpack over my shoulder and headed out to the street. The street sign said “Avenue des Alpes.” Yes of course. The main street was down a block. Literally. One took steps to get to the main street. Ancient memory chunks were falling back into position. A Cuckoo clock I’d been allowed to purchase as a Christmas present, and which still hung over the living room in my home—the thing I’d possessed the longest—had been purchased less than fifty yards from where I now stood.
More useful, a billboard proclaimed the Hotel Tartin, with low rates. I walked towards it, not quite knowing where else to turn in a town I had once called home. A rate was quoted and accepted, I was given a key, and soon I was able to drop my pack on a bed in a pensione not so far—I judged—from where Derry and I had spent our first night in Montreux during our honeymoon. I missed her terribly at that moment. There was something completely wrong in being here without her.
My mind was bouncing around chaotically from memories of my honeymoon—twelve years ago—to memories of when I’d lived here—thirty years ago. And then there were memories of the present, that is to say, feelings, impressions, visions, emotions that I knew would eventually become memories as well. Is that not the cruelest fate, to lose one’s ability to experience the present? To sense only how this will all appear in retrospect? My sister Beth had once commented on how it was a desirable trait, while on vacation in distant lands, to simply quit taking pictures, and to instead simply enjoy and experience one’s surroundings. Had I lost that ability?
I left my room and walked down to the shoreline of Lake Geneva. I’d never called it Lake Geneva. It was Lac Léman. The very word “Geneva” had sounded funny to me as a child. I had always thought of the town as “Genéve.” For that matter, the word “Switzerland” had sounded faintly ridiculous as well. I knew it as “Suisse,” or, more accurately, “La Suisse.” In French one cannot say a noun without an accompanying article. To even think of the country with it’s English spelling had seemed absurd.
Yet that had been years ago. Now it was Switzerland, and the lake was Lake Geneva. Both words sounded correct. “Léman” and “Genéve” were whispers of another time. I walked along the walkway we’d called “La Promenade.” Perhaps it had another name in English, but I was sparred the knowledge of it. The most impressive, the most spectacular mountains one can see from Montreux are called “Les Dentes du Midi.” Typically these mountains are obscured in cloud, and this evening was no exception. But across the still waters of the lake rose the French Alps, and the glittering lights of the towns St. Gingolph, Evian, and Thonan. How many nights had I gone to sleep watching the reflections of these towns in the water of the lake? St. Gingolph and Thonan were still unknown names outside of the region, but Evian produced a bottled water product that had become renowned, and was now quite trendy even in the United States. Yet for me it was still merely a town who’s lights—reflected in the lake—had helped me go to sleep at night.
I kept walking, seeking—yet fearing—more memories. The swans were still there. I remembered chasing the swans in paddle boats. The swans always won. A large, black, modern glass building caught my attention. This was completely new. In recent years Montreux has become famous as a jazz-festival location. Signs on the building indicated that this was an auditorium, the center of the jazz activities perhaps. I was more interested in the old swimming pool, the “piscine” we’d enjoyed as a family. I found it at last. The strange double-trapezoid shape had not been changed, and a host of memories were called forth by simply staring at it. How was it possible that so much time had passed, that so much had changed in my life and yet this swimming pool had not changed at all? Would I have felt better if it had no longer been there? If it had been replaced, perhaps, by a modern high-rise office building? On some level, yes. Finding an icon of my childhood still intact made me feel my age: to feel the passing of time. Like I said, I hate nostalgia. It’s a nasty emotion, and very over-rated.
Thankfully, I found nothing I remembered along the main street through town. There were restaurants and gas stations and jewelry stores. I chose a restaurant that seemed to offer the right combination of casual atmosphere and quiet elegance and I chose the cheapest thing on the menu: spaghetti. It was heaven to be in French-speaking Switzerland. I could speak French and not feel self-conscious bout it. Or, put another way, I could speak French and worry only about my vocabulary and pronunciation, without the question of whether it was the right language to even be speaking.
Back at my hotel, I lay in my bed and faintly recalled that earlier in the day I’d been discussing the Las Vegas jewelry show with Lee Lawrence at the JCK booth in Basel. But then, that had been decades ago. Or was it decades in the future? For now I was in a warm bed, with a down comforter, on the shores of Lake Geneva. Granted, the room was different than what I remembered. The decorations that had hung on the walls in Chalet Ward were not there. My parents weren’t in the next room, as they should have been. But I was able to drift off to sleep among surroundings that were almost—but not quite—familiar.
At eight thirty the next morning I held the phone to my ear and listened as it rang on the other end. I was terrified that someone would answer, but I was determined to make the call. My parents had enrolled me and the other children in private French lessons shortly after we’d arrived in Switzerland. Our teacher had been a woman named Mademoiselle Rosenthal, the owner of the local Berlitz school, aged about 50 at the time. It had been proper use of the language to address her simply as “Mademoiselle” and—as happens in such cases—all of us began to think of that as her actual name. I remembered her as a very calm, pleasant woman, with infinite patience, and a reassuring smile. She would talk only French to us children, during lessons that went on for nearly a year. Sometimes these would be at her office in Montreux, other times she would come to Chalet Ward and hold the lessons there. I never remember having trouble understanding her, so she must have started with very simple words and expressions, and eventually worked us up to conversational French. She had been very much a part of our life, and by the time we left Switzerland we considered her part of the family: an older sister, perhaps. Perhaps more.
My parents had stayed in touch with Mademoiselle slightly by mail over the years. Not too long ago, when Derry and I had begun sending out annual Christmas cards, I’d put her on the mailing list, thinking she might enjoy hearing from her former student. I’d been rewarded by lengthy letters, at least one a year, and all written completely in French. I had her most recent letter with me, although it was nearly a year old. She’d mentioned something about selling her school and moving out of Montreux and up into the surrounding mountains, perhaps to Les Avants. The concierge at my pensione hotel had helped me with the phone. We had not found her name in the phone book, but had found the Ecole Berlitz. I’d called there, and the woman who answered did know Mademoiselle Rosenthal, and did have a phone number for her. She had indeed moved to Les Avants.
Les Avants is a local phone call from Montreux, and I waited now to see if anyone would answer the ring. I’d not written ahead to indicate I was coming to Switzerland. My plans had been uncertain, and the possible demands of my schedule, unknown. But there was one thing I was quite sure of. All kidding aside, I would not try to speak to her in French. My French was adequate for ordering something in a restaurant, and for asking directions at a train station. But it had atrophied terribly over the years, and even if at one time I might have been able carry on a simple, broken conversation in French, I could come nowhere near doing so now. And anyway Mademoiselle spoke English. She’d always been able to talk to my parents, and she was a Berlitz teacher, for heaven’s sake. She just had never spoken English to me. This time she would. She was no longer my teacher! This was a social call, not a professional one.
“Allo?” came the voice at the other end of the line. I could not tell if it was her or not.
“Est-ce Mademoiselle Rosenthal?” I asked.
OK, I figured it was only polite to confirm her identity in French, before converting to English.
“Oui,” she said, somewhat uncertain.
“Est-ce Mademoiselle Gabrielle Rosenthal?” I asked again, needing to make absolutely sure I was talking to the right person, and also not quite sure what I wanted to say next.
“Oui, oui!” she said, seeming even more uncertain and concerned, I judged.
“Ici, un vieux ami,” I said. (This is an old friend of yours.) Having started in French, there was not yet a graceful way to slip back into English.
“Vraiment? Qui est-ce?” (Really? Who is this?) She wasn’t worried now, just curious. Very curious.
“Je m’appelle Jacques Voorhees. Vous me souviens?”
There was a sharp intake of breath, and then: “No! Ce n’est pas possible! C’est Jacques. C’est vraiment Jacques?”
It was impossible not to feel the warmth and sincere pleasure emanating from the voice at the other end of the line. My doubts about trying to get in touch vanished, and I could not wait to see her. The train station, the lake, the Swiss Alps, the swimming pool, all those things had been painful reminders of the passage of time. I was frustrated by them, I realized, because I couldn’t talk to them! They just sat there, unchanged, mocking the fact that I had. No wonder I hated nostalgia. But a flesh and blood person was different. She would have changed too. She must be over eighty now. But what did that matter? She remembered me! She knew me as a 12 year old. In fact, she knew me only as a 12 year old. She was my link to my childhood, silly as that sounds. By default, this one person embodied the entire country, and was really the only way I could really relate to that country. Of course I couldn’t wait to see her.
She at first tried to figure out how she could come down the mountain and meet me in Montreux but I wouldn’t hear of it. I wanted to visit her where she lived, in Les Avants. She protested that it was very tiny, she had only a single room, but I brushed away her protests. “I used to live in New York City,” I explained. “I’m quite certain that my apartment was smaller than yours, and anyway I’m interested in seeing you. It doesn’t matter how big your apartment is.”
Of course in French this phrase was no doubt not so well-constructed as I’ve set it out in English, but I was able to make her understand and she quickly agreed. We arranged that I would catch the next train to Les Avants which left n about half an hour, and she would meet me at the station.
The 9:15 M.O.B. train began the reverse journey on schedule, this time climbing up from Lake Geneva, past Fountanivent and Chamby. Again I clung to the window, this time seeing a more spectacular view, with the skies clear and the Dents du Midi towering over the breathtaking scenery, and Lake Geneva—Lac Leman—spread out before me. I was glad I’d been able to carry on the conversation in French, broken and poorly-accented though it had been. Yet I was looking forward to being able to drop the pretense that I was fluent in that language. Arranging a rendezvous was not especially difficult. Catching up on the last thirty years would be an entirely different matter.
I wasn’t worried about recognizing her. The Les Avants station is tiny, and the train itself was not crowded. It wasn’t like there would be hundreds of faces milling about the platform.
The train emerged from the long tunnel. Les Avants jumped into view with it’s gingerbread chalets and lush pastures of springtime grass. Jaman Peak and Rochers de Naye, still covered with snow, towered over the tiny alpine village. And as we rolled to a stop I saw her, looking on eagerly at the several faces that began to alight from the three-car train. She very definitely was older. She was quite old. But the shape of the face, the wave of the hair—all white now instead of blonde—even the way the eyes darted about in anticipation: it was all very familiar. In the back of my mind I thought: she really hasn’t changed that much.
She hadn’t seen me yet, as I was at the end of the cars. I hopped off, waved, and then she greeted me with a big hug. I can’t remember what she said at first. It was all French, spoken very fast. Perhaps I didn’t even understand it, per se. But the meaning was clear. I tried to say the same things back again, struggling horribly with what I knew was ridiculous vocabulary and mangled verb endings.
Talking thus, we walked slowly up the steep path away from the station, and towards the chalets higher up the hillside. Of course we walked slowly. She was eighty three years old. I was almost half her age, but was carrying a large travel pack, containing five dress shirts, three suits, and two pairs of shoes from all those business meetings in Basel.
Nonetheless we arrived at her house in just a few minutes. It wasn’t really what I’d call a chalet in the classic sense. More a modern cottage. She rented a two room section of it, and it was small. No more than a couple of hundred square feet divided between a living room and a kitchen.
“I don’t care if it’s small,” she said. “I like the location. It’s so pretty up here, so much nicer than in the city, don’t you think?” (“N’est-ce pas?”)
Of course by “city” she meant Montreux. That was stretching it a bit. To one who has lived in Manhattan, Montreux can never feel like a city. But she had a point. Opening up from the tiny kitchen were inward-swinging French doors that led on to a miniature balcony: just enough room for two people to sit and have tea, which we did. The mountains and valleys around Les Avants are steep, but not quite steep enough for her to be able to see the lake itself. It was just barely hidden by a pine-covered hillside. Les Dents du Midi were the centerpiece of the view, as of course they would be from the west side of the valley. The cliffs of Rochers de Naye hung perilously above us, and in the other direction were the alpine meadows of grass, kept short by the perennially grazing Swiss cows, still sporting their characteristic bells which provided an on-going and pleasant “tinkle…tinkle..tinkle…” to the springtime air. Fifty yards out the window were the funicular tracks leading up to Sonloup: an observation spot with views over several valleys, and the requisite Swiss dining room always to be found at the top of every mountain railway. I had memories of Sonloup. I had memories of the whole area, for that matter. The sun was not yet high in the sky, but it was high enough to provide warmth to the valley and it was obviously the beginning of another beautiful day on the slopes of French Switzerland.
Anyone who expects me to recount, more or less in dialogue fashion, the course of our conversation will be disappointed. I barely understood it while in the midst of it, and now it seems a most unlikely dream. Mademoiselle had absolutely no intention of letting me slip back into English. That was obvious from the beginning. One might have thought it polite for old friends, meeting in this fashion after so many years, and one of them not speaking the other’s language, to have dropped quickly into the one language both could speak: English. But it was not to be. Occasionally I would come up against the brick wall of inadequate vocabulary, and there would be nothing for it but to let an English word or even phrase come to the rescue. But I would do so guiltily. Mademoiselle, patient as always, would be tolerant, quickly translating it for me and making sure I pronounced the words properly before escorting me firmly back into the on-going river of French which by now was becoming a torrent. The first hour went quickly, and I could not remember ever having talked French this solidly for a whole hour. My French lessons themselves could have lasted no more than that.
But we were communicating. It was working. The sentences were coming back. It was odd. Occasionally I would be tripped up by the most elementary noun or verb. My mind would draw a blank, even though I knew the word would return quickly if I hadn’t needed it so desperately and on such short notice. Other times an obscure phrase, or even an idiom, would hop neatly onto the table and into the proper place in the conversation with no effort whatsoever. Mademoiselle noticed this as well. “You are speaking very well,” she said. “You are only a little rusty. If you had a few days of practice like this, it would come back completely.”
She may have been right. I was finding it easier the more we talked. But then, I’d always been able to talk French to Mademoiselle. I had never talked anything but French to her. She had taught it to me all those years ago, patiently, encouragingly, never letting me become frustrated, always helping out with a quick translation when nothing else would serve, but only as a last resort. And she was doing it again. Speaking French to Mademoiselle was like dancing with my wife. Derry, the former Arthur Murray dancer, can guide me through anything from a fox-trot to a rumba. But if I try to dance like that with any other woman I usually make a hash of it. No doubt Derry had designed that phenomenon into her training. Now, with Mademoiselle, I was swinging and waltzing through extremely intricate conversational French and I never quite lost my balance, although I remained on the verge of doing so the whole time.
There was much to discuss, of course. She wanted to know everything that had happened to the Voorhees family in the last thirty years. She asked detailed questions about everyone who had lived in our Chalet, including little four-year old Cassie (now with a four year old of her own), Beth, Dick and Connie Lee, Dani, my grandparents—everyone. I covered it all, and many subjects led to other, related issues. At times we found ourselves slugging our way through such language swamps as psychiatry, health issues, environmental questions, and even the purpose of life. Very little time was spent chatting about the weather.
I also told her about Polygon, and how it worked, and what I’d been doing in Basel. She was aware of the big jewelry trade show going on this week. From my backpack I pulled my little Austin laptop computer, with active-matrix color screen, and displayed slide shows of the AGTA Spectrum award winners, along with pages from the Stuller catalog, and some antique jewelry and modern quartz watches. She was properly impressed, but not overly so. We discussed the jewelry industry for awhile, and I found her surprisingly informed on the subject, as she seemed to be on many subjects. Over eighty years old, she’d had a long life in which to accumulate knowledge, and she hadn’t wasted it. Nonetheless at every opportunity she would maneuver the conversation back to personal issues, and we spoke for some time about Connie Lee. Several times I found my eyes getting damp, for there were emotions here that had remained undisturbed for decades. Yet it was an entirely natural subject, for she had known Connie Lee as well as she’d known me.
And there were less painful subjects. I told her much about where we lived in Colorado, how it wasn’t nearly as beautiful as Switzerland, but that it was a heck of a lot better than New York. She understood that I was going to head out for the next couple of days and cover as much territory as I could by train. “Je me souviens, que toujours vous aimez les petits trains. Et cependent, encore vous les aimez!” (I remember how you always loved the little trains. And yet even now, you still love them!) She spoke slowly and clearly, as a trained language instructor would do, and she had an uncanny knack of being able to adjust her conversation precisely to my level. I understood absolutely everything she said. It was holding up my end of the conversation that was difficult.
I’d arrived at 9:30 a.m. and by noon I needed to leave if I was going to still have a chance to visit Blonay, my old hometown, and still make it to Zermatt that evening. We checked the train schedules but the next M.O.B. wouldn’t arrive for another hour. She telephoned a friend of hers in the village, and it was somehow arranged that since he was going to Montreux anyway, he would drive me back down the mountain. We re-traced our steps to Les Avants, found her friend at the local sidewalk cafe, and all of us hopped in his tiny station wagon. Her friend, she said, had just turned 100 years old, which I found remarkable. He didn’t look a day over ninety. He knew how to drive, well enough, but he didn’t speak French nearly as well as Mademoiselle. He mumbled under his breath, spoke quickly, used too many weird words, and in general behaved as women other than my wife do when I try to dance with them. In short, he burst my bubble. I didn’t understand French as well as I thought. On the other hand, when 100 year old men speak English, I usually don’t understand them all that well either. Mademoiselle did her best to translate into real French when necessary, and it was often necessary.
They had conspired between them to give me a little tour of the countryside before taking me back to Montreux. We drove up the winding road to Sonloup, and then down into the valley on the other side. We passed a field I immediately recognized. Dick, Connie Lee, Beth, Casi, and I had once picked narcissus in that field. It had been all abloom with narcissus. My parents had driven us there. “Ou sont les narcisses?” I asked. They explained that I was about a week or so too early. In two more weeks they would once again bloom, all over the hills.
As we drove along I expressed my thought that, if it were possible, I would enjoy bringing my family over here to live for a year, as my parents had brought me. I would need to find a chalet to rent, of course. We rounded a corner and there was the cutest chalet, nicely done in a natural brown stain, looking out over the lake and the French Alps. “A Louer” said the sign. We stopped and got out, and I took some pictures, so I could show my wife where we were going to be moving next year. It was a delicious fantasy, more so because it wasn’t entirely absurd. In a few more years it might be possible for me to bring my family to French Switzerland for a year, although I doubted I would be able to muster the patience or ability my parents had contributed to such a venture. Beth, my parent’s oldest child, had been sixteen at the time. Erik, my oldest child, wouldn’t be sixteen for another four years. I still had time to re-live the whole thing as a father, if I wanted to.
But as we drove on I knew that bringing my family to Switzerland for a year was about as likely as my going back to Alaska to get my float plane rating. After my first lesson it had seemed almost a certainty I would do so. Yet such plans have a way of slipping quickly back from the brink of possibility, once normal routines reassert themselves.
Mademoiselle said they would drive me to Blonay, if I had time, because I really should visit Blonay again. By this point I’d decided to blow off trying to get to Zermatt that day. Driving around with Mademoiselle and her 100 year old companion was more fun. We stopped at a cafe on a hillside and bought some lunch and ate it on the deck. Mademoiselle slipped back inside and paid for everything while her friend and I were eating. I didn’t discover this deceit until later, when I tried to pick up the tab. She was really being too kind, but I appreciated her hospitality. I was her guest now, and she was determined to keep it that way. Back in the car we headed further west and the road began climbing once again, this time to Les Pleiades, the small mountain directly above our chalet, served by the C.E.V. cog train from Blonay. The road didn’t quite reach the top, and we didn’t have time for the 15 minute walk up to the restaurant, so we headed back down again. We passed a couple of hair pin turns and I saw a low, thatched-roof farmhouse on our right. A small field of grass extended from it upwards about fifty yards to a wooden fence. Something about it struck a chord in my memory. “Arrettez! Arrettez!” I cried. Leaping from the car I scrambled up the dirt embankment and crossed over into the field. I checked my bearings, checked the farmhouse, studied the slight rise of the field, and juxtaposed it all against a day 31 years earlier. It had been raining that day. Our whole school had hiked up here from Blonay—it must have been sixty or seventy kids—and we’d stood in the rain and picked narcissus, establishing, under the eve of that roof, an actual assembly line of gathering, organizing, cutting, trimming, and finally packaging narcissus into bundles to be shipped off to orphanages and such around Europe. This was the tradition in French Switzerland. Picking narcissus and shipping them to others was like giving people fruitcake on Christmas eve: everyone did it. I’d hated the experience. It had been miserable, standing there in the rain, getting drenched, having to harvest industrial quantities of that stupid weed. Even at age twelve it had made such an impression on me that later I’d written it all down as a narrative: my first attempt at travel writing, such as it was. I’d never guessed I could find that exact field again. Yet this was it. No doubt about it. It hadn’t changed at all. Except this time, thank God, there wasn’t a narcissus in sight!
We were now approaching Blonay from above, which is an unusual way to reach that mountain town which overlooks Lake Geneva. At this rate we would pass our old Chalet soon, Chalet Ward. I’d been back to see it a couple of times before, looking wistfully from a distance. I knew there was a different name on it now: Le Relais. There is something not quite right, something discordant, about looking on one’s home and not being able to go inside. Yet I still wanted to see it again. I gave directions to our driver and soon we were there. Except for the name, it hadn’t changed at all, at least from the outside. But the hog farm behind it had changed. The hog farm—we used to wake up to the sound of squealing hogs being slaughtered—had been replaced by modern condominiums. I had to admit it was an improvement. Mademoiselle and I got out of the car, and I walked as unobtrusively as possible to a position where I could take a few photographs. I don’t know why I did. I had taken quite a few photographs of it before on my last two trips here. And like I said, it hadn’t changed. But there wasn’t a whole lot else to do. Taking photographs at least let me interact with the structure, on some level.
We walked back to the street, and were just passing the front gate on the way to the car when the chalet door opened. A young woman came out. Not so young perhaps. Maybe late thirties. Not unattractive. She had seen me taking photographs and she was understandably curious and a little concerned. “Bonjour,” she said, hesitantly, which is always a good way to start a conversation in French-speaking Switzerland.
“Bonjour,” I replied, equally friendly. I would have loved to have told her who I was, that I used to live here as a child, and that I was taking pictures only out of nostalgia and a touch of homesickness. But I was light years from being able to render such complex thoughts into a quick couple of sentences. She would have grown old and died before I could have summoned the necessary vocabulary.
Mademoiselle, sensitive to the situation, came to my rescue and said precisely what I wanted to say. I understood her completely. I even understood the woman’s response.
“Would you like to come inside, and see the Chalet?” she asked. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I would have killed to have gone inside. I channeled my eagerness instead into finding the words which politely accepted her offer, and praised her lavishly for her kindness. “Vous etes trop gentil!” I insisted, and she protested politely, saying it was nothing.
Once over her initial concern, perhaps being that we were private detectives about to embroil her in a lawsuit, she warmed quickly and rolled out the red carpet. We toured the living room and the dining room first. They were both much smaller than I’d remembered. On the other hand I had to keep in mind that I was bigger. That would distort perspective. She’d switched the rooms. The living room was now the dining room, and vice versa. That seemed odd, but everything was nicely done, nicely furnished. Chalet Ward had been decorated with antiques by its original owner, an elderly British woman. Le Relais was more modern, but still very tasteful. Most changed was the kitchen, which was now completely modernized with Formica counters, a dishwasher, and an electric stove. Despite these surface changes the whole house was screaming memories at me, every wall, every door, every angle in the hallways. I deliberately shut down that part of my brain, for it could easily have been overpowering, and I was still having to be polite and speak French to the nice lady who was showing us around. I realized that Mademoiselle was no doubt being struck with the same recollections as me. She, also, had been a daily part of this house and had likewise not been in it for over thirty years. She and I exchanged brief reminiscences as the tour continued. The upstairs was next. We walked up the creaky old wooden staircase, almost a spiral so tightly did it twist upwards. The rooms were there, of course. My room had changed the most. I forced my mind to shut out the images from the past that were assaulting me, and instead walked quickly through this modernized version, and over to the tall floor-to-ceiling French doors, and out onto the wooden balcony with the overhanging rain spouts in the shape of gargoyles. The view hadn’t changed. The view hadn’t changed one bit. The medieval Chateau de Blonay dominated the foreground, silhouetted against the broad expanse of Lake Geneva. And rising up out of the lake were the French Alps, absolutely as spectacular as ever. The woman explained that she was a professional masseuse, and she had converted this room into her studio. Mademoiselle conversed with the woman for several minutes about the health benefits of the massage but, as the vocabulary was quickly leaving me in the dust, I stepped next door to what had been my parent’s bedroom. Then I slipped upstairs and peeked into Beth and Dani’s old room. Re-decorated, but otherwise the same room. The bathrooms had all undergone complete makeovers, and were now gleaming Formica with beautiful, modern baths and showers. One thing was clear: Chalet Ward had not fallen into neglect. It was as well maintained as ever, and in fact had been considerably improved. The woman lived in the house with her two sons, both teenagers she explained, and I guessed she was divorced. I also guessed she would soon be remarried. She was young, attractive, and living in a beautiful home.
And she was very kind to two strangers who arrived so unexpectedly.
We said our good-byes when the time came to do so, and I held my own as we thanked her profusely. She loved to ski, I discovered, and had even traveled to the Rockies. I gave her my business card and made her promise she would come visit my family next time, and I would treat her to equivalent hospitality. Who knows? Perhaps I could some day talk her into trading houses for a year.
Once back in the car, Mademoiselle and I remarked on how remarkable a thing it was, to have been able to get a tour. I think she was no less thrilled than me. Blonay itself arrived a few moments later, but I’d seen Blonay on my earlier re-visits, and I knew nothing here would be as exciting as having seen the Chalet. There were a couple of modern office buildings, but they’d been there during my honeymoon. Everything else looked about the same as it did in 1963, including the sign over the grocery store saying “epicerie.”
“I don’t understand,” I said to mademoiselle. “I’ve never been able to figure out the difference between the words epicerie and alimentation. Which one means ‘grocery store.”
“They both do,” she said. “No wonder you’re confused. They both mean the same thing.”
So, that was the end of that thirty-year mystery.
We decided they would drop me at the train station. Mademoiselle’s friend would have been happy to drive me all the way back to Montreux, but she understood how much I wanted to ride the Blonay C.E.V train to Vevey. Of all the trains in Switzerland, this one was closest to my heart. My love affair with Swiss trains had begun with the C.E.V. As luck would have it, a train was stopped at the station now. We said our good-byes quickly, not quite sure how soon the train would leave. I gave her a big hug, and meant it. Then, slinging my backpack with its three suits over my shoulder, I hopped on the C.E.V., which I think stands for “Chemin de fer, Electrique, de Vevey” The two of them drove off, and I collapsed in a seat, utterly, completely, absolutely exhausted from six and a half hours of speaking solid French.
I wasn’t sure the brain cells could take much more, and the nostalgia pounding they’d received at Chalet Ward had hardly helped. The little train started off, and I was only dimly appreciative as the memories passed by outside the window: our apartment, where we’d stayed for a month before the Chalet had become available, the street crossing always decorated with geraniums, the Chateau itself, looking as foreboding and medieval as ever from close up, as the train skirted its perimeter. Then there were the station stops on the way to Vevey: St. Legier, where Dani had once attended class of some sort, La Chiesaz, Gilamont, and finally Vevey itself.
I’d had it in mind to stroll around the center of Vevey, home of Nestle’s chocolate, for at least a few minutes while I waited for an eastbound train. But as the Vevey station came into view my pulse quickened and the bittersweet memories of the day were cast aside, leaving me clearheaded at last. There, on the tracks, was an SBB-CFF express train bound for Milan, Italy. I grabbed my pack, raced down the tunnel under the tracks without even thinking how I knew, automatically, to do so, and jumped onto the waiting train. A moment later it eased forward out of the station and gathered speed. I’d made a perfect connection and—considering my destination—found a perfect train. Bound for Milan, it would head up the Rhone valley, through the Canton of Valais—my favorite in all of Switzerland—past the towns of Aigle, St. Maurice, Martigny, Sierre, Sion, Visp, and Brig, before heading under the Simplon tunnel to Iselle, Stresa, and Domodosolla, finally arriving in Milan. I would change trains at Visp and, with any luck, might be able to arrive in Zermatt by nightfall. After Zermatt, I would go—where? I didn’t know. But I had a Swiss Railway pass, and that meant I could go anywhere.
My brain cells were coming back to life rapidly . I plunged, feverishly, into my Cook’s Continental Timetable and—as I lost myself in a Swiss train feeding frenzy—a strange euphoria helped heal the wounds of time’s passing. For on a subliminal level, the underlying message of the day’s journey had found its mark. You can go home again. And it does not have to be so painful. In a few cases—a very few—it can almost be fun.
At three thirty in the afternoon there was plenty of day left. The train arced gracefully around the eastern tip of Lake Geneva, shooting past the Chateau de Chillon almost too fast for my automatic camera to fire off three quick shots. I knew it was silly to take such pictures. Like, I didn’t have any photographs of Chillon? It hadn’t changed since the 14th century. But Americans are bred to take photographs. It’s in the genes. And one doesn’t overcome such reflexes with common sense. It takes years of therapy.
I sat back now, content merely to enjoy the view. Going up the Valais, we were heading right past the Dents du Midi. They looked very different from this angle. When one is accustomed to viewing a mountain from a specific direction—such as from Chalet Ward—one forgets that it’s not a two dimensional painting, that it has sides, a front, and a completely different appearance from the back. It also has a completely different appearance when it’s not hidden by clouds—always a problem with Swiss mountains.
I had brought my Cook’s Timetable book with me, as mentioned, to provide a reminder of how the Swiss rail network fit together. But as it was seven years out of date I wasn’t foolish enough to expect that I could use it as an actual train schedule per se. Yet I was noticing a strange phenomenon. Since leaving Basel every train I’d taken had arrived and departed from every station precisely when this book said it would. This present express to Milan was doing the same thing. Apparently Swiss train schedules are immutable constants, like the mountains themselves. Other activity flows on around them, but they are unchanging. I found this reassuring.
Having decided I could trust the timetable to actually be a timetable, I set about determining if I’d be able to get to Zermatt by evening. The answer: just barely. The last train to Zermatt left Visp 15 minutes after my present train arrived there. And I would not reach Zermatt until 8:00 in the evening. I questioned the wisdom of even doing this. It’s one thing to arrive in a city with no reservations. I do that all the time. But to arrive in a small village—a ski resort—tucked far up a valley in the Swiss Alps (so far up you can only get their by train) and to arrive at eight o’clock at night, seemed a bit risky. Early April is not exactly the high season. On the other hand that could work against me: most of the lodgings might be closed. And there was no backup plan. Once you’ve taken the last train into Zermatt, there is literally no way out until the first train the next morning. I had visions of spending the night leaning up against a wall in a cold inhospitable train station.
I’d been to Zermatt in 1963 (at age twelve) and in 1982 (on my honeymoon). There is really only one reason to go to Zermatt: to see the Matterhorn. That had certainly been my reason. And it was my reason again. One might think that seeing the Matterhorn once is good enough but one would be wrong. Is seeing the ocean once good enough? Is seeing a sunset once good enough? The Matterhorn, I judged, needed to be seen at least three times. Possibly four.
I made the connection at Visp, and the little mountain train huffed and puffed for two hours up the steeply-ascending, cog-railway track towards Zermatt. Perhaps, since it was electric, one should say: “sparked and shrieked”. I was becoming a bit worn out with Swiss scenery by this time. How many quaint chalets can one tolerate? How many stunning mountain peaks? Awe-inspiring glaciers? Rushing streams? Contented cows? The mind numbs and one’s vocabulary of superlatives pumps dry.
When you first reach Zermatt you can’t see the Matterhorn. It’s hidden from the main part of town, kind of off to the right behind a ridge. I slung my pack over my back and set out to find a place to stay. Zermatt really is a small village, and it’s not difficult to walk most anywhere. By 8:30 I’d found a small room—only thirty dollars a night, with a tiny single bed and a down comforter. Walking over to the window I opened the blinds, pushed the glass panels outwards (typical of Europe), and there it was. The last gasp of the sun had served to bathe the Matterhorn in a shimmering, rosy hue. I could only see the top third of the mountain—the ‘working end’ so to speak—but it was as stunning as ever. Those who have only seen this famous peak in photographs assume it’s smaller than it really is. It doesn’t really overhang the town, like a giant guardian, commanding a third of the sky, they think. That’s just the telephoto lens effect, they believe. But in truth you can’t even use a telephoto lens to take a picture of the Matterhorn from Zermatt. You’re too close. Only a wide angle will do the trick. The mountain really is spectacular, and huge. Yes, I decided, it does need to be seen four times. I was glad I would be coming back at least once more.
Much of what I’d been trying to do the last couple of days was re-live my honeymoon. Hence the M.O.B. train, a spaghetti dinner in Montreux, a trip up the Valais, and a visit to Zermatt. In keeping with the theme I now set out to find a restaurant that served raclette, that quintessential “Valisanne” treat which boils down to nothing more than boiled potatoes and melted Emmenthal cheese. A pickle or two on the side provides local color. But somehow it’s delicious, one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. And I had no trouble finding it in Zermatt. Finding raclette in Zermatt is like finding catfish in Louisiana. It’s almost the only thing on the menu.
Unlike my timid insecurity about speaking to the waiters and waitresses in Basel—do I try English or broken French?—I no longer had any doubts. This was Switzerland, by God. French was one of the official languages. I’d spent six hours speaking French that day. In fact I hadn’t spoken anything but French since waking up that morning. And even if I’d crossed back into German-speaking Switzerland, I’d only barely done so. The canton of Valais is mostly French. I gave my order to the waitress in French with no hesitation whatsoever, and even asked a few follow up questions just to test her fluency, daring her to slip into German. She didn’t. Zermatt waitresses—being so close to the French-German line, are 100% bilingual.
But tomorrow, I knew, I would be heading more deeply into German Switzerland, and this would be the last night I could use my newly-resurrected French so unabashedly. I had a day and a half left, and over dinner I planned the rest of my trip.
A couple of things were mandatory. The next morning I would take the cog railway from Zermatt up to the Gornergrat Glacier, which is the thing one does in Zermatt if one wants to really see the Matterhorn. The Gornergrat is on the opposite side of the valley, which is where you need to go. Otherwise you’re too close. And after I’d really seen the Matterhorn I would leave Zermatt immediately. I only had a day and a half left.
The next essential was to take a train trip I’d wanted to take the whole time I’d lived in Switzerland. I’d taken many trips, but not this one. And this one was arguably the best: Brig-Andermatt-Chur. The town of Brig is at the head of the Rhone valley (which gives it’s name to the Canton of “Valais”.) The express train of earlier in the day had turned south at Brig, entered the Simplon Tunnel, and emerged in Italy, at the head of the Po Valley, the Po being a river which drains into the Adriatic near Venice. The other option for trains continuing on beyond Brig is to go east, climb the steep Furka pass, and drop down to Andermatt, near the headwaters of the Reuss River. The Reuss flows north into Lake Lucerne, and eventually drains into the Rhine at Koblenz, just upstream of Basel.
But the train continues eastward beyond Andermatt and immediately climbs another pass, the “Oberalp” pass, which brings one to the canton of Graubunden and the actual headwaters of the Rhine river. Chur (pronounced “ku-er” like “Coor’s Beer”) is the primary commercial center of this area, located down from the high Alps and on more of a plain that reaches north to lake Constance.
There are few trains in the world which have to cross two mountain passes to reach their destination, and possibly only one which does so in six hours. And that was the train I wanted to take: the Furka-Oberalp Railway, rumored to be one of the most spectacular train trips in the world. As I contemplated this while working on another helping of raclette, I noticed that the Furka-Oberalp route was also served by an express train: the Glacier Express. I loved the name, and was thrilled to discover that the Glacier Express began right in…Zermatt! Perfect! It goes back down the valley, on into Brig, over the Furka pass to Andermatt, and over the Oberalp pass to the town of Disentis. Shortly thereafter it splits, with some of its cars continuing on down to Chur, and the rest of the train heading over yet a third pass, deep into Southeastern Switzerland, to the very remote ski resort of St. Moritz. I had once skied for several days in St. Moritz and liked the place. I wouldn’t mind going there again. On the other hand if I went all the way to St. Moritz tomorrow, I’d be hard pressed to get to my plane in Zurich by noon the following day. I could do it, but it wouldn’t leave time for much else.
Well, no need to make that decision over raclette. I went to bed right after dinner, and was up early the next morning. If I didn’t catch the first train to Gornergrat I’d never have time for the Furka-Oberalp trip, and then the whole plan would be ruined.
I hadn’t expected a ski train to be filled on its first run, especially in early April. This one was, but not with skiers. After I’d taken my seat by the window (I knew which window would give me the best view) I was dismayed to see all three cars fill up with Orientals. These were tourists, obviously. It was some kind of tour group from Japan or China or some place like that. They were all ages, and none of them was dressed for skiing. A young woman, perhaps in her twenties, sat down directly across from me and after a moment begin fidgeting with her map. I was in no mood to be social. It was 7:30 in the morning and I’d just started drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup. I hadn’t even had breakfast, and the fact that I saw no chance for having breakfast anytime during the day was not improving my mood. I’m a morning person, but only if I have breakfast.
The train started up, almost immediately latching onto its cogs and tilting sharply. All the tourists started commenting on this. I could not tell what they were saying, but I recognized the language. Japanese. Oh great. This was just wonderful. Now there was going to be this pressure on me to try to say something to this girl in Japanese.
No problem. I would resist the pressure. Ignore it utterly. There was no way I was going to talk to anyone. And talking to some young woman, in Japanese? At 7:30 in the morning? Before coffee? Not!
The train climbed higher, and the coffee remaining in my cup got lower. The pressure to say something to this person seated across from me increased. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to say something! I cast around for an opening remark, some simple Japanese phrase that would at least be polite. Then I could return to my coffee and drink it in silence. OK, here we go. I shifted position slightly, opened my mouth to speak, and ran into a brick wall. I paused a moment, startled. There was nothing there. My entire vocabulary of Japanese words, phrases, and grammar had been wiped clean. Gone. Erased. I could not think of even a single word, in Japanese. OK, I could think of one: konichiwa (hello). That was it. The phrase I’d expected to put together quickly was: “Good morning. Are all of you Japanese?” It wasn’t that hard a phrase. It was within my ability. Or at least once it had been.
But all the Japanese in my brain had been erased. I knew what had happened. The French from yesterday had pushed it out. I’ve never been very good at languages. I can only learn them painstakingly and with infinite study. At the first opportunity, words and phrases that I’ve already committed to memory will sneak away—given the flimsiest opportunity. My entire Japanese vocabulary had apparently bailed out during the French marathon in Les Avants.
I checked the French part of my brain, to see if it had fled during the night, as was likely. No. The French was awake and ready for action. I felt I could have said anything to this girl in French.
But the social situation wasn’t going away.
I took another swallow of coffee, stared out the window, and—after five minutes of intense concentration—finally came up with:
“Sumimasen. Anata-wa, eigo hanishite, desu-ka?”
No doubt I said this with a French accent. The girl looked up, surprised, but she understood. What I’d said was “Excuse me, do you speak English?”
“Hai!” she replied, and then switched into English.
So we spoke English for the rest of the trip, but I felt I’d vindicated myself by having at least forced together a few Japanese words. The effort had been enormous. Before heading back to Tokyo I was going to need some serious refresher courses.
Gornergrat glacier and the surrounding scenery were as beautiful as ever, and I again succumbed to primeval urges and took more pictures of the Matterhorn. The whole time I was clicking away with my camera I was telling myself that I had these exact same shots from thirteen years ago, and in fact from thirty years ago, and the mountain had not moved so much as an inch in that time. But trying to keep from taking pictures would have been like trying to stop a sneeze. Best just get on with it.
The Japanese girl explained that the group was going to stay up at the glacier for an hour and fifteen minutes, at which time the train would take them back down. But I asked the conductor—in French—when the train was going to depart and he said it was leaving in five minutes. Obviously the Japanese were waiting for the next train after that. Well, it was the train trip that was important, not the glacier itself. I hopped back aboard and this time had the whole thing to myself.
Soon we were back in Zermatt. I raced across the terminal and had just minutes to catch the next train down the valley, to Brig. I hadn’t known which train this would be, not having known when I could get back from Gornergrat. But I was in luck. As we pulled out of the station a voice came over the loudspeaker: “Welcome to the Glacier Express, bound for Brig, Andermatt, Disentis, and St. Moritz!”
I relaxed in my seat, enjoying the luxury of finding no Japanese people seated across from me. In fact, it seemed I had the whole car to myself. The night before I’d made the mistake of trying to wash one of my shirts. I always pack as little as possible, and wash clothes in the sink while en route. With my packing space—always modest—shrunk even further by three suits and two pairs of shoes, I needed to do laundry that much more often. This time I’d washed a shirt and hung it out to dry from my window at the hotel in Zermatt. Big mistake. In the morning it had been covered with ice. Now, with the sun shining into the Zermatt valley, and the train whisking us along through a delightful day, I decided to hang the shirt out the window. No doubt it would dry in seconds.
It did not dry in seconds, but I was determined not to put it back in my suitcase and have it mildew. We picked up more passengers as we went along and I felt all of them were mildly disapproving, entering a car and seeing wet laundry hanging from the windows. This was supposed to be the Glacier Express, after all, bound for St. Moritz. What was the world coming to? Worse, most of the passengers seemed to be British tourists and I began to wish I could somehow replace them with Japanese. Japanese, being practical, would no doubt have approved of my attempts to wash my laundry, and would have walked in, commenting: “Ah so, desu neh!” (Which translates loosely, in this case, as “Ah, here’s a man who sensibly washed his laundry in his sink last night, and who is just as sensibly drying it now by hanging pieces out of the train window. Very clever. Wish I’d thought of it myself…”)
At Brig they’d loaded a sandwich cart onto the Glacier Express, which was fortunate as otherwise I would have had to try to grab something from the station, and risk missing the train. Wouldn’t be the first time that had happened.
The ride from Brig to Andermatt, over the Furka Pass, was fascinating because it was a completely new part of Switzerland for me. I’d never been here. These were new mountains, new valleys, new rushing rivers and new contented cows. I know, intellectually, that Switzerland is only 1/4th the size of Iowa, but I’ve always had a hard time believing it. There is so much to the country, and new places like this keep popping up. How could it all fit into 1/4th of Iowa? Then I realized. They were only counting two dimensions. Yet Switzerland is mountainous! Most of the surface area is vertical. Looking out my window, as more and more glaciers and cliffs and spires and crevasses swept past, I suspected that Switzerland—counting surface area—was probably larger than California. Truth be told, it was probably the largest country in Europe.
We changed engines at Andermatt for the stomach-wrenching, near vertical climb over the Oberalp Pass. The train left the station and started upwards, winding back and forth across the mountain, seeking altitude. We’d been underway nearly half an hour and had climbed at least 5,000 feet, yet as the crow flies we were no more than a quarter mile from the station. This was a very steep pass.
Finally we left the view of Andermatt behind, and now the world was completely white. It seemed we had reached a land of eternal snows, for snow was piled high on either side of the train, and stretched on in all directions. Back in Montreux it was Springtime and the narcissus were starting to bloom, but there were no narcissus here, at the top of Europe. At last we crossed the pass and began descending into the valley that feeds the headwaters of the Rhine river. On this stretch we were skirting the very northern section of Italian Switzerland. To the south were Swiss towns with names like Locarno, Lugano and Bellinzona
I had a decision to make. The Glacier Express would take me all the way to St. Moritz in far southeastern Switzerland if I stayed on it. Or, I could move back a couple of cars and—when the train split—I could continue on down the valley to Chur. According to Cook’s, this train would get me to Chur by 4:00 p.m. Or, I could reach St. Moritz by 7:00.
One of the interesting things about St. Moritz is that it’s in that tiny corner of Switzerland where—according to legend—they speak neither German, French, or Italian, which are the three official languages. They speak a strange, ancient tongue called “Romanche.” It isn’t an official language, but it still survives, so they say. In the U.S. there is a popular brand of sunscreen called “Piz Buin.” Piz Buin is from St. Moritz, and the words are Romanche. They are the only Romanche words I know. Of course I don’t really believe in this nonsense. If Switzerland is 1/4th the size of Iowa, and 99% of it speaks either German, French, or Italian, what are the chances that some gypsy-like tribe would still be surviving in the mountains, still clinging to some absurd, medieval language? Like, I’m sure. Well, perhaps a few ancient, grizzled, grandmothers were sitting about in shawls, occasionally interjecting a nearly-forgotten Romanche word into a conversation, just for old time’s sake. But actually I hadn’t heard a thing about Romanche since I’d been to St. Moritz in 1963. Thirty one years ago? Those ancient grandmothers were gone. And I was quite certain the language—if it existed at all—existed only in the colorful names of local bars and restaurants, and on sunscreen containers. Especially with St. Moritz being an international jet-set destination, a quaint, forgotten language was not likely to be preserved. But it was an interesting part of the St. Moritz folklore, much like the thought of druids once inhabiting the Devonshire plains of England.
Turning back to my decision, if I chose St. Moritz that would be the end of the trip. There would be just time to take the first train out in the morning and reach Zurich by noon, in time for my flight home. So going to St. Moritz meant, basically, lots more great scenery: more mountains, more glaciers, more rushing streams, more contented cows.
Been there, done that.
I was ready for something a little more adventurous, and I knew just the ticket. If I could get to Chur by 4:00, I could catch a train going north, down the Rhine valley, to the town of Sargans. I’d never before heard of Sargans, but now it had caught my interest. In fact, I was fascinated with it. Sargans, according to my map, was about an eighth of a mile from—Liechtenstein! In other words, a whole new country. A country I’d never even been to. There were no train connections to Liechtenstein, but that wouldn’t stop me. I could rent a bicycle. Or I could walk. Or, best choice yet, I could take a Postal bus. In Switzerland, the Postal buses compliment the efficient railway system. Unlike in the U.S. where bus terminals are at the opposite end of town from train stations, in Switzerland they’re right there, by the train. You can hop off a train and get on a bus. And my Swiss railpass was just as good on the Postal buses as it was on the trains, streetcars, and lake steamers.
Astonishingly, my Cook’s timetable, still seven years out of date, had an inset showing the postal bus routes and times. From this I learned—assuming it was still valid and there was reason to assume it was—that I could take a postal bus from Sargans across the Rhine river to Liechtenstein and up to Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein. Good heavens, perhaps I could even spend the night there! I checked the schedule feverishly, and it could just be done. An early morning bus from Vaduz would get me back to Sargans in time to catch the express train “Ratia”, one of the big international express trains of Europe. Starting in Chur and ending in Berlin, it would whisk me to Zurich just in time for my flight.
I was a little hesitant at the thought of arriving at 6:30 PM in a country I’d never been to before, with no reservations, and trying to find a hotel room on foot, from the bus stop. In the case of Zermatt I at least knew the town, and knew there were hotels, and knew where they were. Liechtenstein? What did I know of Liechtenstein? It was trendy with international bankers seeking to hide their money. OK, so there must be banks. And that strongly implied there would be hotels. It was worth the risk. Looking even optimistically into my future I doubted I would ever again have a chance to visit Liechtenstein.
After meandering down from the land of eternal snow into once again the land of beautiful springtime grass and contented cows, the train came to a stop at Disentis. I thought it a strangely-spelled name, but it looked typically Swiss: a gingerbread chalet-style train station, a church steeple, some houses, and here and there an assortment of Swiss cows. There weren’t many people in the train car at this point, only a couple of elderly tourists. I was buried deeply in my train schedules, trying to learn more about Liechtenstein. At the sound of giggling I looked up.
Two young girls had taken their seats, kitty-corner from me, across the aisle. They were quite young, probably teenagers. Juniors or seniors in high school, perhaps. Both were attractive but one was absolutely stunning. She had long brown hair, high cheekbones, and was quite tall and slender. Bright, intelligent eyes jumped about quickly, eager to learn, yet faintly mocking everything they touched. She looked like Mariah Carey. If I’d been a movie producer I would have grabbed her in a flash, wrapped her in a box, and shipped her off air freight to Los Angeles, where several motion picture production companies might have grown up around her.
But after awhile I turned my attention back to the train schedules and the growing allure of Liechtenstein. It would be the first time I’d ever stayed over night in a country, without having known that morning that I was even planning to visit it. Somewhat annoyed, I realized it was going to be difficult to concentrate. The two girls were talking in loud, gleeful voices, constantly laughing, constantly giggling. They were having so much fun they just couldn’t stand it. They weren’t drunk. They were just energetic, vivacious, mildly irreverent, and seemingly in love with life. But they were also being a bit rude. Why so loud? What could they be talking about that had them giggling so much? Probably they were discussing a funny incident at school that day, or something silly one of their friends had done, or perhaps they were reminiscing about last weekend’s dates. I couldn’t understand them, of course, but there were others in the car. Didn’t they care who was listening?
I listened myself, just on the off chance I might recognize a word or two, and because I really had no choice but to listen. They were speaking heavily accented German. That made sense. I was fairly sure we were still in German Switzerland. Andermatt was German. I was certain that Chur was German. The Italian section was farther south, although Italian-speaking Swiss might certainly be found on the train. I listened some more. No, I was wrong. Those words were not German. Why had I thought they were German? They were Italian! It didn’t sound at all like an Italian accent though. No doubt it was Italian spoken with a Swiss accent, which would probably sound something like a German accent. No wonder I’d been confused. The girls were not even beginning to slow down. They had lots to talk about, and most of it was funny. I kept listening.
Wait a minute. That wasn’t Italian either. I don’t speak German or Italian, but I can certainly tell when one or the other is being spoken. This was neither. I kept listening to the words, trying to pick up a clue. I was willing to make broad allowances for regional dialects, but I just couldn’t figure it out. The words were very beautiful. It was a sing-songy cadence, like French if not more so. R’s would be trilled off with wonderful abandon. And many phrases seemed to wind up with an “ish” sound, as in “squeam-ish.” Taken together, and spoken by these two exuberant teenagers, the sounds were mesmerizing. For miles I sat back and simply enjoyed listening to them converse.
We were approaching a station, and both of them suddenly got up and walked to the rear of the car and through the doors. It seemed likely they were preparing to get off. I was never going to find out what language they’d been speaking, and it would haunt me the rest of my life. To hell with that. I jumped up and rushed after them, through the door.
It was noisy here, at the end of the train car, near the outside door. But I didn’t care. I found them and got their attention. People kid about how it’s possible to convey questions and answers in a conversation even when neither of you speak the same language, but there’s some truth to it. I asked if they spoke English, but that drew a blank. I tried French, with the same result. “Sprechen zie Deutsch?” I asked, not sure what I would do if they said “ja.” I certainly didn’t speak Deutsch, and apparently neither did they. But they were amused by my attention, and very friendly. By now they were as curious as I was. Somehow I finally conveyed to them, perhaps with hand signals—I really don’t know—that I wanted to know what language they’d been speaking.
Comprehension dawned, and the should-be movie star smiled and said—slowly—“Romanische!” — giggled, and then followed it up with a cascade of paragraphs who’s meaning was lost to me completely.
“Romanische?” Romanche. These girls had been speaking Romanche? I was in shock. This was no forgotten language. This was not a case of a couple of grandmothers interjecting an ancient word here or there. I’d been listening to these teenagers speak solid Romanche for nearly an hour! And apparently it was the only language they knew. I’d gotten nowhere with English, French, or even German.
The train pulled to a stop, and they hopped off, but it was only to buy sodas. They were back on in a flash, and this time when they took their seats across the aisle they tried to talk to me. We really did try, and there was a great deal of laughing and good will, but it was simply not possible. My high-school Romanche was absolutely not up to the task, and finally we gave it up. They were very sweet about it, but at last they smiled apologetically and went back to their animated conversation that had continued almost unbroken since Disentis. Now that I thought about it, I realized that Disentis was probably a Romanche word. In truth I didn’t know where the boundaries of Romanche Switzerland were, except that they included St. Moritz, still some ways southeast of our present position. I’d been skeptical that there even was a Romanche Switzerland. Live and learn. Two of its living, breathing members were seated right across the aisle.
The train arrived at Tavanasa (another Romanche word?), and this time the two girls did leave the train. They smiled at me and waved, and no doubt said something appropriate in Romanche, but I will never know what it was. (Although there was a good chance it was “good-bye.”) I waved in turn, and said something appropriate in French, the closest I could get to Romanche. Having listened to the sound of Romanche being spoken at such length, so near me, and so enthusiastically, I decided I liked it. It was a very pretty language. And I found myself hoping it would not die out, that it would somehow continue, generation to generation, adding to the sunshine and peacefulness of these lovely mountain valleys. Or better yet, perhaps one day the scattered Romanche-speaking tribes could rise up, arm themselves, conquer Germany, and force the Germans to speak a civilized language. God knows someone needed to do it, and it was only a matter of time before someone would. I wouldn’t write off Romanche just yet.
In any case I’d had my fill of linguistic contrasts for the day. Japanese at the Gornergrat glacier. Romanche this afternoon. What would my seat mates speak on the bus to Liechtenstein? With my luck, no doubt, it would be that ancient, fabled tongue: Licht.
We had entered the canyon of the VorderRhein, the “upper Rhine.” The waters surged past the steep walls, fed by the melting snow of the Alps, and as our train rushed along beside them I knew my soul would not be at rest until I’d taken a canoe through these rapids. They were class two and three rapids, just perfect for a canoe. I sat back and watched the scenery while trying to figure out the logistics of bringing a canoe to Switzerland. You could hardly check it as luggage. If you tried to carry it on it might just fit in the overhead rack of a 747, but it would use up the entire rack on one side of the plane. That would hardly be fair to the rest of the passengers. On the other hand a canoe is mostly hollow. You could put things in it. Probably it would be best to ship the canoe as freight. The thought of renting a canoe once I got to Switzerland never crossed my mine. If I couldn’t use my own canoe, I wasn’t interested.
At Richeneau the Glacier Express calved, with three cars heading off—shepherded by a new engine—to St. Moritz, while the rest of the train stayed the course and continued on into Chur. My ride on the Glacier Express being over, I changed at Chur to a northbound train and was soon on my way to Sargans. The Rhine valley had broadened considerably, being now even wider and flatter than that enjoyed by it’s counterpart the Rhone, over on the other side of the Alps, in the canton of Valais. Nonetheless where the valley stopped the high, snow-capped mountains rose up precipitously, as if annoyed at the river’s interruption and determined to continue where they’d left off.
The town of Sargans was quite small, barely more than a village, and here on the street outside the station was a bright yellow Swiss postal bus. The sign on the front said “Vaduz.” Things couldn’t get much easier. I hopped on and in a few minutes—precisely at the moment predicted by the seven year old Cook’s timetable, the driver hopped on and we headed off for Liechtenstein. I was expecting him to be impressed with my Swiss travel card, guessing they weren’t all that common on the Sargans-Vaduz run. But no one on the bus asked for tickets. No problem. I had my passport ready. That was the important thing. I couldn’t wait to get a Liechtenstein stamp in my passport.
Not one traveler in ten thousand, I judged, could boast of a Liechtenstein stamp.
The odds were worse than that, I discovered. As we crossed the bridge over the Rhine river, and into what technically should have been Liechtenstein I caught a glimpse of a strange flag, posted mid-way on the bridge. It might well have been a Liechtenstein flag. I confess I don’t really know Liechtenstein colors all that well. I peered ahead eagerly, seeking the immigration and customs stop. The frontier would be coming up any moment. The bus continued on past the bridge, turned right and gathered speed heading towards the town of Treisenberg. Every half mile or so along the highway the driver would pull over, stop, and pick up a few more passengers. None of them showed their tickets, or paid for their passage. Worse, none of them were showing anything resembling passports. Treisenberg had come and gone, and Vaduz, the capital, was the next stop. So where was immigration? Where was the border?
At last we came to the outskirts of Vaduz, and the horrible truth was inescapable. Liechtenstein and Switzerland, God curse their souls, did not maintain a border. No border, no immigration officials. No immigration officials, no passport stamp. Hell, the whole trip was wasted. I should have gone to St. Moritz. For that matter, I should have hopped off the train at Tavanasa and worked on my Romanche.
Just as I was about to descend into the depths of depression a voice within me noted that it didn’t really matter, since no one—in my entire life—had ever asked to look at the stamps in my passport, or had ever seen the stamps in my passport. “Just lie,” said the voice. “The next time someone asks if you have a Liechtenstein stamp, tell them ‘yes’! What are they going to do, look?”
Stupid voice. The voice didn’t understand. If you don’t get a stamp, it doesn’t count. It didn’t happen. Everyone knows that.
I was distracted by a larger problem. Where was Vaduz? In Zermatt the train arrives, very cleanly and obviously, at the Zermatt train station. The train stops, and everyone gets out. Hotels are there for the taking, most of them within easy walking distance.
But Vaduz was seeming more and more like a real town, arguably even a city. The bus was making lots of stops. Every quarter mile it would stop and some people would get out and others would get on. And I knew that this bus was heading beyond Vaduz, up to Shaan and Planken, wherever those places were. Wonderful. How was I going to know when and where to hop off the bus? If I wasn’t careful we’d be past Vaduz and back out in the countryside before I knew it.
Eventually I noticed that some larger buildings had coalesced into what was likely to be a city center. The bus pulled to the side of the road, just opposite what appeared to be a PTT bus terminal. I could not imagine things getting any more urban, so I hopped off.
Vaduz was either a large town or a small city, but it seemed typically Swiss. Had it not been for that one flag half way across the Rhine bridge, I would not have realized I’d entered an entirely different country. The immigration agents obviously hadn’t realized it either. But after a quick glance around, with no obvious hotels in sight, I decided I was too encumbered to undertake the level of exploration that would be needed. There were luggage lockers at the PTT terminal and I was able to crunch my overloaded pack into one of them. Freed of this 65 lb. burden I set off more quickly down what appeared to be a main street, hoping to find a hotel. There were several not too far from the bus stop, but I kept wandering. Vaduz is set at the edge of the Rhine valley and, true to form, the mountains began quickly. Thus half the town was more or less flat, while the other half rose up eastwards on the flanks of the Liechtenstein Alps. There aren’t very many Liechtenstein Alps because the country is not in a position to claim very many Alps. Only a few miles south and north, the Alps are owned by Switzerland. And even a shorter distance to the east, perhaps five miles, they were Austrian Alps. Liechtenstein is smaller than Summit County, Colorado. I found some tiny streets heading east out of the town, up into the hills, and I followed these hoping, I suppose, for a room with a view. As I walked I noticed that the one dominant physical feature of Vaduz is the fact that an ancient Chateau, or castle, clings to the mountainside above the town, and thus completely dominates it. It’s very picturesque, quite in the same league with the Chateau de Blonay or the Chateau de Chillon. Perhaps blueprints for all three had come from the same catalog.
I found the hotel I was seeking, nearly as high up the side of the valley as the Chateau itself, but more off to the side. They did have a room, and the room did afford a pleasant view to the north and west. The sun was low in the sky, and the shadows of the Rhine valley were sharply defined. Newly-planted vineyards glowed with the late afternoon’s rays, and the high mountains of Switzerland rose up majestically on the far side of the valley. With the question of lodging solved, I was in the mood to walk around a bit further. The girl at the reception desk had indicated I could walk to the Chateau if I wished, and gave me directions. It was farther than it looked, up a heavily-forested lane that climbed slowly but steadily from our present position. It was worth the hike, perhaps. The Chateau was a pleasant enough place, but it seemed a bit inhospitable. I’d expected to find some kind of museum—closed, no doubt, this late in the day—but at least with its hours posted. Or, if the castle was only a ruin, I was certain I’d at least have found a bit of a park there, perhaps some picnic tables and charcoal grills. Certainly we would have done this at the ruins of any Chateau in America.
But this chateau had “Private—Do Not Enter” signs posted prominently. And even a guardhouse protected the entrance to the driveway, complete with a guard, no less. That was disappointing. Perhaps one of the rich bankers from Vaduz had purchased the establishment and kept it for private parties. The view was nice, and I enjoyed it for awhile. I might have enjoyed it more if there’d been a picnic table to sit down at. And at least one charcoal grill would have been pleasant, although one doesn’t like to complain.
I discovered a well-marked path that seemed to head straight down into Vaduz itself, traversing back and forth across the steep mountain slope. I followed it, and was surprised to find that here and there a bench had been set. And usually near the benches were information signs, explaining in considerable detail everything about the Chateau, the city of Vaduz, and even the country of Liechtenstein. I read these of course, and thus was able to learn why the Chateau was so well guarded and private. The reigning prince of Liechtenstein—titular head of the government—lived there! It was Liechtenstein’s equivalent of #10 Downing Street. No wonder the guard had eyed me suspiciously when I’d been snapping pictures from across the street.
Having descended all the way to Vaduz I reclaimed my heavy pack from the storage locker and began the torturous climb back up to the hotel. It took nearly 45 minutes this time, and it was well past dusk by the time I was able to collapse gratefully in my room.
I repeated this gauntlet early the next morning, but it seemed easier, perhaps because I was going downhill. The PTT bus was on time, and it returned me to Switzerland and the train station at Sargans. Things fell into place neatly as the “Ratia” express, bound for Berlin, roared into town and stopped just long enough for me to climb on board. Two hours later I was back at the main terminal in Zurich, having completed my circumnavigation of Switzerland. A shuttle train whisked me out to the airport, and before I knew it I was on board a United flight heading home.
My circumnavigation of Switzerland had required precisely fourteen trains, and three days. No doubt I could have done it faster, and more efficiently. But one gets rusty after thirty years. More to the point, I felt I’d re-united myself with the country, at least on some level. When we’d driven away from Chalet Ward in 1963 I knew I would always consider Switzerland as home, but that kind of sentiment needs to be re-kindled from time to time if it is not to fade away.
At least I’d succeeded in minimizing that risk for many years to come. And, in the back of my mind, there was still that Chalet for rent just west of Les Avants, and with a beautiful view of Vevey and the French Alps. It couldn’t hurt to at least let me wife see it…