CHRISTMAS 2010, SOMEWHERE IN THE SWISS-GERMAN HEARTLAND
I’ve never enjoyed Christmas much as a (relative) grown-up, but I loved my introduction to the European version. In Australia, backyard beers and sizzling sausages on a 30C afternoon, followed incongruously by hot, heavy — and admittedly delicious — pudding drowned in custard and littered with antique threepenny coins, had just never worked for me. But this felt like the real thing. It actually seemed possible to believe that something deeper or more meaningful than an orgy of shopping, eating and bad television was taking place in this ancient little town between Zurich and Lucerne.
As well as being my first, this one felt like being my last olde worlde Yuletide in a long while. My Swiss girlfriend, S____, and I had enjoyed a honeymoon period of approximately a week’s duration almost three months before, and much of the rest of my stay was an exercise in highly scenic and decidedly mutual antagonism.
The magic of my sudden immersion in a high-elevation fairytale just wasn’t sustainable. After those first few amazing days at Grindelwald, where I found myself hiking in the shadow of the Eiger, a mountain I regarded in awestruck reverence since reading several bloodcurdling accounts of lethal misadventure on its flanks, we returned to her lakeside apartment in a small town bursting with tax-avoiding millionaires and faced the mundane truth: we just didn’t like each other that much.
My shortcomings are many and obvious. As for S, she was very conservative (I know: a Swiss conservative!) despite her belief that single motherhood and a propensity for roaming the world (we’d met in Brisbane) made her somehow special. I don’t wish to deal in stereotypes, but the one about the Swiss (or at least Swiss-German) sense of humour: check. You need a pretty skewed and laconic worldview to survive long with me, but when she did laugh it was more of a forced and pitying chuckle than the belly laughs I needed. She was also very Catholic at heart, very much into family and determined (I soon realised to my horror) to enlarge her own.
When S’s very young son, A_____, returned to her home after a stay with his (millionaire) father, the war was on in famously neutral Switzerland, and it was a conflict in which I could never hope to triumph. I surrendered and looked at the positives: I had a 90-day visa and I was in one of the most beautiful countries on the planet. My finances were dire after several months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, but she’d known that when I came and graciously paid me an allowance, handed over to me with very Swiss regularity every Friday: the equivalent of $200, pocket money to spend as I wished for as long as I cared to endure a stay with her.
It’s called landing on your feet.
Her parents were very good to me, and we stayed with them in their little home on Christmas Eve. We drank too much, and with too much variety (her dad produced a bottle of grappa after the real wine was finished); Christmas morning was cold, my head was hurting — but man, what a beautiful scene. The tree was real and tall and well-laden, and through the windows I watched snow coming down while a platter of very good cheese was presented for breakfast:
A’s doting grandfather (not a word of English; A’s grandmother spoke it quite well) took him out to see the rabbits and frolic in the snow the way Australian kids will leap into the surf. I tried a few minutes but retreated indoors, all frolicked out:
S and I had by now admitted the inevitable. I had another two weeks or so, and after some appalling fights and a lot of solitary roaming on my part while she worked during the week — an arrangement that suited us both — we still tried to enjoy some civilised outings on weekends and holidays.
Leaving A with his grandparents and his haul of presents, she took me on a ramble in the snow-carpeted farmland surrounding her childhood home. As well as several long solo day trips into relatively far-flung (in this tiny country) regions, I’d done quite a lot of wandering through the neighbouring countryside, often ending up frostbitten and pretty lost, grateful for the network of walking trails and yellow signposts, not so much for the sullen farm dogs and suspicious glares of their masters.
It was good to have a guide this time, though we spoke little and I suspect there was a tinge of resentment in the words of us both. I was still almost phobic of snow after some awful experiences in the High Sierra, and my hands would ache terribly with my circulatory disorder (her response when I mentioned it was always scornful and even embarrassed), but even though this was as cold as I could imagine being (I hadn’t tasted the real cold of a New York Winter), I tried to drink it all in and enjoy it:
There were so many times over that period when I would just find myself gobsmacked at the classical perfection of things I saw. This was one. I mean, it was a freezing, snowing Christmas morning — what better time for a nice horse ride? They rode slowly, silently, and soon disappeared in those almost-forbidding fairytale woods:
S was indifferent. We walked on.
Despite my hungover seediness and our decidedly sombre rapport, I attempted now and then to enliven things with some forced jollity…
..but it really wasn’t the time or place.
S would usually leave me behind while I paused to attempt a photo — she hated my camera and would often complain about the attention I devoted to it and the laptop at night as I edited the day’s haul. She also loathed having her picture taken — clearly this relationship could never have worked:
I had a lot to learn about photography and still do, but this period was when I first began to take serious attempts to move beyond mere snapshots. Weeks prior, I’d left my previous camera on a funicular railway as I descended the Zugerberg; it turned out to be a blessing as that camera was dying, the motor screaming its distress as it tried to focus (I have almost no decent pictures from the PCT), and its replacement, the tiny shock-, water- and freeze-proof compact I had here, served me very well.
But Jesus, the way my fingers throbbed in agony when I took off my glove to fumble with its minuscule buttons!
Another horseman rode by without a word — perhaps one of the same ones from earlier…
..and soon after, when I looked down on this gorgeous creek…
..I realised I’d walked this road weeks before, one bleak, aimless day when I’d had no idea where I was but was in no particular hurry to be anywhere more familiar.
We’d almost completed a large and erratic loop, and after passing her former school…
..we were back at her parents’ delightfully warm home, where A and his grandfather were still playing happily among piles of wrapping paper and ribbons, and her mother was smiling from within a cloud of cigarette smoke on the back porch.
I believe I had another coffee then, or perhaps another wine — something, no doubt, to restore the sensation and movement to my poor battered fingers…
Bob Dylan, All Along the Watchtower, 1967:
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote