röstigraben: crossing the invisible potato border

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Matterhorn mountain as viewed from Zermatt

One day during our honeymoon in Switzerland, we drove to Täsch and then took a train to Zermatt, which is where you visit if you want to see the famed Matterhorn, sometimes referred to as the Mountain of Mountains, or Berg de Berge in German. As we walked Zermatt’s long main street to reach the lift that would take us to the Matterhorn “glacier paradise,” we noticed that signs were all in German. In the windows of Bäckerei were Grittibänz, those cute golden bread men. We were greeted with hallo instead of bonjour.

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I was delighted that only an hour’s drive from our French-speaking base of Crans-Montana could have us land in a town that felt so completely German. What I didn’t find out until later was that, during our short trip, we had crossed what’s known in Swiss German as the Röstigraben. Rösti is a simple Swiss potato dish, like a big hash brown. Röstigraben (potato ditch, essentially) is a lighthearted term for the barrier that divides the French and German-speaking parts of the canton. It is not merely linguistic, but often refers to differences in attitude and voting habits by the people on either side (think Bible Belt, or New Yorkers vs Southerners). Similarly, there is a term for the divide between German-speaking Switzerland and the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino: polentagraben.

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The Matterhorn looms over Zermatt. The mountain is an iconic symbol of the Swiss alps with its distinctive crooked-pyramid shape. It’s the mountain you find on a bar of Toblerone, and its Disney copycat in Anaheim has drawn many fans, who get to “bobsled” down the twists and turns of the small-scale depiction. To my eyes, the mountain has personality, a quirky look that reminds me of Harry Potter‘s Sorting Hat. If I am to characterize the Matterhorn, though, I would be wrong not to mention its dark side. Scaling the heights of the Matterhorn has tempted climbers since 1865, when it was first successfully ascended. (Though this success is relative. Seven men attempted the climb, only three made it back).

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This ascent of the Matterhorn marked the end of the “golden age of alpinism,” since the mountain was one of the last major peaks in the Alps yet to be ascended.

In Zermatt today is a small cemetery at the foot of a church. It seems to contain only the graves of those who have lost their lives trying to tackle the Matterhorn or other nearby mountains. The Matterhorn itself has claimed about 500 lives since its first “successful” ascent. Some of the graves are decorated with gear, such as a small iron cross looped with rope and an ice pick.

We didn’t have much time to look around, though, as we needed to get to the gondola. It was approaching noon, and the ride to the top would take a full 45 minutes. At that altitude, nighttime comes early and falls like a hammer.

The Matterhorn Express is billed as the “world’s highest 3S cableway.” The brochure promises it’s “like flying.” At 82 CHF a pop (about 72 euros right now), we thought it better be. Funnily enough, that was practically the budget option. There are cars offering champagne and comfortable leather seats or a full fondue meal, should you so choose. Talk about lunch with a view. ACS_1428

Once at the top, we stepped out of the gondola and into Italy, just over the border. The “glacier paradise” is a real feat of engineering: there is a restaurant, gallery of ice sculptures, and cinema, inside of an actual glacier. One of the features of a glacier is that it is subject to motion, probably a very slow descent down the mountain. If temperatures should ever cool dramatically, I’m guessing there will be no more glacier paradise. But for now, pretty neat. Lunch was simple, some tomato soup and rösti, but pricy. When you think about what it takes to get those ingredients up to that altitude though, I guess it can be forgiven.  ACS_1408

The best part was the view, a panorama where fourteen glaciers and thirty-eight high peaks are visible. I couldn’t stay out on the platform for long. My thin wool coat didn’t do much to combat the 5 degree Fahrenheit wind. When you start to uncomfortably ponder how it would feel to freeze to death, you should go inside.

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First modern travel poster: a depiction of the Matterhorn

Speaking of freezing to death, there is a cool show available on Netflix called The Horn, which we watched with rapt interest after our visit. It’s a docu-series about Air Zermatt, the alpine rescue team employed to rescue errant skiers and others who encounter danger on the mountain. In the first, teeth-clenching episode, the team attempts to rescue a skier who has fallen into a 100-foot crevasse.

from newlywed to retiree: on places, and what it means to love them

acs_0701It’s a gray day, gloom and drizzle. I am with Victor and we are driving from La Spezia to Pisa, a long stretch of straight highway. Strada statale.

I am content to chat and dee-jay. And sightsee? There isn’t much to see. Once the mountains are out of sight, we aren’t in Italy, but Highway Land.

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It’s funny. This could almost be the well-traveled route between Clinton and Kansas City on family shopping Saturdays growing up. How quickly we have gone from the iconic colors of Cinque Terre to all this non-cultured sameness. We could be anywhere.

It’s interesting what we block out when we dream of or anticipate a place.

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For example, for you or for me, Italy might be: gelato in every conceivable flavor, glossy Vespas, shining white marble, carafes of wine… but to maintain an impression like this, we must block out so much ‘normal.’

We must ignore the great unspooled ribbon of mind-numbing highway. The ugly big-box stores. The cloud cover that renders a day as colorless as a lump of pizza dough.

Sometimes I think we reserve those kinds of stringent observations for home: to criticize what we are used to and tired of.

But, it’s good to remember, every place has this real life aspect. If we approached daily life like we do travel, all highlights and funny stories, maybe seeing the beauty in say…Missouri, would be easier.

No one, I don’t think, has ever sighed and thought, oh Italy… and dreamed of the stretch of highway between La Spezia and Pisa. And so we edit.

Italy contains the beauty I’ve been filling my notebook and camera with, but it’s so much more than that. What, though? I don’t pretend to know. Not yet. I take it on faith, because though I’m still in the dreamy stage with Italy, I’ve already cycled through the stages of a romantic relationship with France.

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It’s gone from a first crush, starry-eyed infatuation to a comfortable familiarity to seeing flaws and resenting them all the way to, finally, a deeper kind of love.

Newlywed to retiree.

Disillusioned is the word. France is more, for me, than sparkling city lights and rose macarons and espressos enjoyed at cafe tables. On a three-day visit, this country of cheese and trains, baguettes and bicycles, might be able to retain this kind of glamor.

The casual visitor can leave with a photo album and a slew of good memories. But when you live someplace, you have to give up the dream, to a certain extent. img_5210

For me, France is a home, the place I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life once I’ve been free to choose, the place I work and write and grocery shop and wait for the bus and cry and sweat and dance and listen to podcasts and make lists. The place I practice all the verbs that make up a life. (The place I practice all the verbs that make up French, for that matter).

And that is why, I think, it feels so good to be away for a bit, to a place that once again lets me dream freely. For the time being.


Photos taken in Portovenere, Italy

On a similar note, check out: Less-Than-Thrilled: When You Don’t Want Your Dream

alone in italia: day one

I am in a BlaBlaCar, sitting snugly in the backseat behind two French ladies also on their way to visit Cinque Terre.

I met them at a roundabout in Mandelieu–just south of Cannes and the ‘world capital’ of the mimosa flower. Sitting on a patch of sidewalk just out of traffic, I felt more like a classic hitchhiker than ever.

BlaBlaCar has enabled me to take trips that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. Today I’m using it instead of the trains to cut costs, cut travel time, and (perhaps most importantly) avoid the grèves–the nationwide SNCF railway strikes liable to put a serious hitch in travel plans.

Still, there’s always a bit of a niggling worry that the conducteur might show up late or even–worst-case-scenario: change their mind. This isn’t technically permissible, but the only consequence for the driver would be a bad review and the obligation to refund my twenty bucks. I picture sweating alone on the sidewalk for hours. I wouldn’t have another good option to get to Italy.

Happily, my two French hosts swing around the traffic circle right on time: early, actually.

The women point things out to each other, labeling what they see as we wind up and around cliffs on the road from southern France to southern Italy. They make the pleasant, unnecessary comments that flourish in good company. They’ve known each other for years; I can tell.

We are in Genova. The road is squeezed between clusters of melon-colored buildings with dark-green shutters and the edge of cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean.

There is much to look at. I am dizzy with palm trees, sunset, a grand ship in port, the whine of Vespas in impossible places, crumbling stone arches, mustard-yellow apartments with flagrant flapping laundry.

Regarde là-haut.

Un citronnier.

Les marguerites. Que c’est beau.

Putain, oui.

They comment to each other, to me, to themselves. They comment with matter-of-fact appreciation, nothing sentimental about it. They note orange trees and lighted tunnels through mountains and particularly shameful parking jobs. In the hills they spy a lighted glass cube, like a futuristic science lab. It sits strangely on top of an ancient stone bridge.

I listen and consider it a good exercise in vocabulary practice.

I appreciate this last stretch of comprehension before I will open the car door and–Italy.

I am already sufficiently new-culture-ized, at the point where the newness is felt and I don’t take communication for granted. We stopped before at an ‘autoroute’ complex off the highway. Tirare on the doors instead of the Tirer I’m used to. Donne and Uomini for the bathrooms. Ciao, grazie and the tre cinquanta I paid for salami, crackers, and a hunk of Parmesan with a cute white mouse on the wrapper.

Already I’m thinking about what language to assume. To apologize in. To fall back on. To confirm a number in. It’s strange to think that I have a choice. I can represent myself as an American speaking in a ‘female, upwardly-mobile dialect.’ Or. I can be something else. I have French now. Greetings and numbers and etiquette. I know how to sigh French, how to make sounds of frustration or apathy. I do these things every day. And crossing the border in a BlaBlaCar doesn’t make it any easier to stop doing this.

So, will it be pardon or sorry that comes out of my mouth when my (6 months of) Italian fails me?

I consider this and make my own lists, labeling. A gigantic “pirate ship” in the bay. Italian flags hung like laundry. Signs advertising Gelateria. Pasticceria. Foccacerria.

I think of the coffee I’ll get tomorrow and drool.

It’s getting late, around 8:30, and a fat pearly moon hangs over a yellow basilica.

Il y a la lune, one of the ladies says, predictably. There’s the moon.

The mountains, as we climb through them, have folds and wrinkles like some fantastic laundry. Like a lumpy green quilt hastily thrown down to disguise a mess.

I am inspired.

I am nauseous.

There are many more mountains and tunnels before we make it to La Spezia, where I have reserved a hostel.

We spend thirty minutes trying to find the place. Increasingly frustrated, my driver stops near a restaurant and wine bar on a lonely street. “Someone go ask if this is it,” she says. The other woman turns to me: allez !

This is certainly not the hostel, but if I don’t want them to leave me in an enoteca for the night, I should probably acquire some direction. So strange now to have to ask: vous parlez français ? (No one does, so it looks like my language question is going to have an easy answer. It’s straight back to la langue maternelle for me).

After some clarification, I’m back in the car and we are chugging up a steep hill with more hairpin turns in a row than I’ve ever seen, a child’s squiggle-drawing of a road, or something from a cartoon.

It’s a matter of faith, because we see no lights and the GPS quit working halfway up the hill, as if it were declaring- yeah, not in my job description.

Before long, we are all laughing. One of the ladies actually wheezes.

Imaginez, they say. “We get to the top and there’s nothing there.” They say if it’s not there we are done looking for it. I will come back with them and they’ll share a bed and give the other to me.

It was there.

I’m here in my comfortable bed. The place has spacious lockers, remarkably clean bathrooms, a restaurant serving dinner and breakfast. It even smells good.

(Words can’t describe how different this is from my last hostel experience in Italy…but actually I did write about that, click here to read)

A domani !

stranger things: the hitchhiker’s guide to the auvergne

It’s a dreary early-spring day in the Auvergne region in France. At some unknown stretch along the highway, I sit at a rest-stop cafeteria table eating bad baguette sandwiches with two strangers.

We sit and chew hard bread and wilted lettuce in companionable quiet. Cold rain splats against the windows and I shiver in my damp jacket and jeans.

I have no idea where we are. I wonder what I would do in the event of separation: just me and my purse and my portable that is dead.

But I am unaffected. I am bold.

(Really, I’m desperate).

I’m a BlaBlaCar rider.

Much like raw milk cheese, BlaBlaCar is a French invention unlikely to appear in the United States. Less delicious than Mont d’Or but certainly more practical, BlaBlaCar is a service that connects riders with drivers in a searchable and safe incarnation of hitchhiking. BlaBlaCar meets a real need as a cost-effective way to travel long distances, say one to ten hours of routemont-dor

The website and app are available for free. Drivers set the price per journey, which includes one seat in the vehicle, and BlaBlaCar takes about a 12% cut. BlaBlaCar now has a presence in 18 countries, but the US is not one of them. As a Business Insider article explains, BlaBlaCar’s effectiveness depends upon a strong public transport infrastructure, making it a brilliant fit for France and Germany, while hypothetically leaving American users stranded.

Unlike Uber, which has exploded in American cities, BlaBlaCar doesn’t work like a taxi service. Drivers input their routes, say, from Paris to Lyon, and mark four or five stops they could make along the way. Rarely do they stray from meeting points, which could include a major train station in each city they pass through. Users can take a bus, tram, or metro to meet the driver and then to hop to their final destination.

This wouldn’t work well in the US, where the meeting point could be miles away from where you are; the drop-off point miles from where you want to be.

Living, as I do at the time, in a quiet corner of the already-quiet center of France, I use BlaBlaCar to fill the gaps in train schedules. Montluçon is already under-serviced in terms of transportation, and I’ve watched resentfully over the year as routes to and from major cities have simultaneously decreased in availability and risen in price.

Today, I’m using BlaBlaCar to get home from Lyon. The rest-stop sandwiches mark the halfway point.

In the morning, I sent my mom to the airport and headed with my bags to the Croix-Rousse. Traditionally the silk workers’ neighborhood, it offers a nice view of the rest of the city–or it does when it’s not pouring buckets. After several metro changes, my wet hair plastered to my face, I drag my suitcases into an old-fashioned belle-époque café where everyone knows each other, even the dogs in their raincoats, and the day’s newspaper is thrown around with cheerful abandon.

Cyril, who I know by first name and through a few staticky phone conversations, told me to meet him around the mairie of the 6 arrondissement. A BlaBlaCar truth: he who possesses the vehicle shall make the rules. Instead of meeting him at the Part-Dieu, Lyon’s major train station which is conveniently located just down the street from my hotel, I lug my bags through metro stations, across a halfhearted market, and up a hill. There it is, the city hall: I think. I inhale a couple of cappuccinos and try to warm up.

Cyril is late. He calls me every twenty minutes with updates–something about a bouchon. Finally, he arrives, driving a sinister and decidedly un-French white van. He is thirtyish with a lumberjack beard and cold-weather gear. He helps me with my bags. From the outside, it seems I’ll have plenty of room to stretch out and sleep during the trip. But when Cyril opens the door, I see that there are only three seats in the cab. As the latest addition to the van of strangers, I am relegated to the middle, feet necessarily perched on the raised platform, knees practically to my nose.

Cyril’s van and his route are highly in-demand. As we drive, Cyril makes and answers phone calls and negotiates exact pick-up times with other riders. We let a girl out in a Flunch restaurant parking lot and pick up one guy on the side of a highway.

I am still in the middle feeling like an oversized child, but I am just glad to be going home and saving fifty euros doing it. I don’t exactly have money to burn. Today’s ride was a third of the cost of the only train that would get me from Lyon to Montluçon.

Road trips are good for thinking. One thing I think about: I am not used to depending on strangers. That’s what I think, anyway, before I realize that is a totally false impression cultivated from an American sense of possibility and individualism. I am not used to depending on strangers–overtly. Really, other people make my coffee and grow my tomatoes and fix my car, yet I still maintain a sense of independence that has been stripped away while I live in France. I become very quickly aware of how often my well-being depends on the kindness of a bus driver or waiter, a random dog walker or fellow diner. And when it comes to travel, I now depend on this updated, tech-based version of hitchhiking.

I’ve ridden with Cyril, Dominic, Valérie, Fred, Karim, Arthur…sometimes Mary and I ride together and we talk about our plans as if these people are our friends. Wanna stop for espresso? Dominic’s running late. The fact that we know them only by first name points to the strange intimacy of road tripping with strangers.

Do you sit in the front or the back? Should you sleep or maintain polite conversation? How likely is it that you and your conducteur will be belting out show tunes and exchanging emails by the end of the ride?

The answer to these questions is not évident. An easy way to start a conversation is by asking about the driver’s motivation. Sometimes it’s simply money; a way to help them justify the expense of weekend trips to see a boyfriend. Sometimes it’s company, a way to spice up an eight-hour drive.

Company comes at a cost: it’s both good and awkward. There’s a strange self-consciousness that comes from the fact that the rider and driver will be publicly rating and reviewing each other after the trip. Sometimes when I scatter croissant crumbs on the seat or fail to really engage with the driver, I scramble to atone for what could be perceived as poor company. No one wants to lose at this game of Rent-a-Friend. BlaBlaCar feels a lot more personal than Uber and other comparable services.

As such, BlaBlaCar does its small part to prepare users for possible personality differences. When users create a profile, they are urged to designate their preferred level of chatter: from Bla to BlaBlaBla, or, it might be stated, the likelihood that you will annoy the person sitting next to you.

Your rating on the website could prove important: drivers can reject ride requests, and some days there might be but a single BlaBlaCar leaving from your location. There’s a small element of personal marketing when you’re competing against others for transportation rights.

Ooh, he’s cute. Mary and I discuss potential drivers (which fully illustrates the lack of thrilling activities available in our town. We joke that we’ve become really boring). Why did they reject me?!” Personal.

I wonder how often two people have met and fallen in love over the course of a BlaBlaCar ride share. It would make a lot of sense, I think. People have clicked for less than similar music tastes.

I certainly did not find love. I did, however, find a not-so-secret admirer, a good fifteen years my senior, who wrote me a review on the site. In it, he praised our belle and enrichissante conversation. I was a person both interesting and sympathique (to borrow the French syntax). And he wanted to get dinner sometime.

When I saw it, I snorted. Beautiful and enriching? He must’ve been talking about the sound of my snoring. The car was crammed with four twenty-something girls, and, sitting in the back, I could barely hear his eager questions. He tried to make eye contact in the mirror, not paying as much attention to the road as I would prefer, so I decided to feign sleep until Lyon. Still, and much to the annoyance of the very-awake Mary beside me, he wasn’t deterred. Is Jessica cold? Does she mind if I smoke? Does she have enough room back there? 

She’s asleep, came the flat response.

You won’t always click with your BlaBlaCar driver. You probably won’t find love.

But for the frequent, tired traveller, the service offers an element of humanity unmatched by the TGV. With a ride-share, you will not be spit out on the train tracks in an unknown city. You will have a chance to hear someone’s story, learn about a new region, get advice and restaurant recommendations. Unless they would rather shut up and drive. And that works too.

In a time when technology has the troublesome side effect of isolating humans into tiny virtual worlds of our own creation, I am cheered by this opportunity to, quite simply, talk to strangers. It meets a real transportation need, and a subtler need too: the need to connect with people. As a lonely American transplant, I appreciated these miscellaneous encounters.

Sometimes they were awkward or embarrassing. They were boring, or else really pleasant. They were human.

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secret garden: serre de la madone

Menton, France has a Secret Garden beauty, rich as it is in dilapidated grandeur. img_3917

There are candy pastel hotels tucked in the hills, once wedding cake-grand but now closed with broken windows. The small downtown area houses murals, fountains, and statues that show their age. A striking yellow staircase leads from the Basilique St. Michel down to the sea, but it begs for a fresh coat of paint.

This pearl of France could use some polishing.

That’s what makes it special, though. It’s cozy, instead of glamorous and glitzy like other spots on the Côte d’Azur. It’s calm (though admittedly I’ve never been here in prime tourist season).

Menton has long been a haven for foreigners, so much so that the town holds a sort of “tourist cemetery” high on a hill with a view of the sea. img_3889

Menton also contains a number of botanical gardens, many of them created by foreign botanists attracted to Menton’s unique climate. Menton is typically about three degrees warmer than other parts of the Riviera on any given day. It’s sheltered from harsh weather by the hills surrounding it, meaning that plants found nowhere else in France can still flourish here (not the least of which is the Menton lemon, celebrated every year with a monthlong festival. To see what I thought of that, click here).

I visited Serre de la Madone, a garden designed by Lawrence Johnston, a wealthy American (though he died in 1958 before he saw the project come to fruition).

Like much of Menton, it’s a cozy contradiction: nine hectares of manicured wildness.

img_3909 Despite the villa, greenhouse, and mossy statues, the garden lacks a human presence. It feels as if it was designed and then left alone, left to the elements. Actually, that is what happened, to a certain extent. When Johnston died the development of the unfinished garden was left to the plants, as he didn’t leave any plans. img_3905

There’s upkeep of course; there was a man weed-eating when I was there, the noise cutting through the tropical tweets of the birds, but the garden cast a spell even so. It seemed beautifully abandoned, despite evidence to the contrary.img_3886

I slipped over stones and ducked under vines, noticing subtle movement everywhere.

Frogs startled, splashing into algae-green pools, thick like pea soup. They croaked from lily pads, perhaps motivated by mating season, so loudly it actually hurt my ears. img_3902

Beetles and dragonflies whirred, and ants marched steadily. img_3930

Brilliant orange fish bobbed, friendly, to the tops of pools.img_3913

At the end of a shallow pool sat a greenhouse that looked both abandoned and ready for guests, a Mad Hatter’s tea. Fat lizards scurried up the walls.