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.

rainy colors: a weekend in Strasbourg

Last weekend I traveled to Strasbourg alone. I am head-over-heels for this Alsatian city: its bright buildings that remind me of a child’s drawings, its lovely street art, its warm, filling comfort food, cobbled streets, and abundance of bicycles.img_7721

I got in around four p.m. and had time to drop off my things and walk through the storybook scene that is Strasbourg’s riverbanks before the sun went down. It was entirely freeing to stroll in the sun with no bags in hand; to compress after a stressful day of travel.  img_7763

From Montluçon I had taken a train to Bourges, then another to Paris Est. From there I took the metro to Paris Austerlitz, then took the TGV to Strasbourg. It wouldn’t have been bad at all (I had snacks, water, a good book, and leftover metro tickets), except that I almost missed my first train. I’ve never felt adrenaline like that as I realized my train, the one I had to take to catch the other two that I had already paid for, was about to leave and that I was, as they say, on the wrong side of the tracks. I waved to the conductor from fifty feet away, desperate and unashamed, and then I flew down the concrete steps at a speed unprecedented by my heeled ankle boots and suitcase. I came to a fork in the road and looked up one direction hopelessly, knowing if I chose wrong I was out of luck. Luckily I saw a train attendent’s face peering down from the top of the stairs. C’est bien par là, mademoiselle ! I raced up the steps and into the train and sat huffing for all of thirty seconds before the doors closed and we sped away quietly.

That little adventure had me sweating all the way to Bourges. I took out my notebook and wrote my latest travel tipassume nothing. Check everything. Ask questions at the first sign of a problem. The problem: I thought I was taking an autobus to Paris, on the opposite side of the station. It wasn’t until I was about to board the autobus, four minutes before it was set to leave, that I decided to ask other travelers in line. I only asked because I noticed, finally, that the bus didn’t match the number printed on my ticket. Luckily, one man was an off-duty SNCF employee who called someone, typed in a door code to get me to the other side of the station faster, and helped me wave down the conductor, then yelled after me that they were waiting. That was the hope propelling me as I flew down those steps. Lesson: learned.

Just when I was breathing normally (a good hour later), we stopped in Bourges and I noticed everyone and their warmly-dressed dog getting off the train. This was supposed to be a direct trip to Paris, so I had nothing to worry about. I sat back and closed my eyes. Yet, a worry tugged at me and, so, having learned from the near-disaster not an hour before, I asked one of the last passengers leaving the train, a portly older man with a friendly face. “Excuse me, I’m going to Paris,” I said. “Do we…have to get off?” My ticket indicated nothing about what I should do. “Yes!” He told me. My heart hammered. That was close. “Well, uh. Was that written somewhere? I didn’t see it.”

“No, it wasn’t,” he said. Naturally. “Follow me.” We boarded another train, this one old-fashioned with skinny corridors and close-together seats set in individual cars with overhead baggage storage and curtains for privacy.

I could finally relax. Travel tipif everyone is getting off the train, get off the train. Or perhaps: pay attention to your surroundings. If I hadn’t trusted my gut, I have no idea where I would have ended up. Certainly not Paris.

I needed to decompress, and a walk around Strasbourg in the cool air and bright sun was the way to do that. After the river, I walked to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg. It’s one of my favorites, jaw-dropping in its enormity, gorgeous in shades of orange and teal. It’s the sixth-tallest church in the world, described by Victor Hugo as a “prodige du gigantesque et du délicat.img_7715

In the next few days I climbed the 332 steps to the top twice, the view was so nice, and each time I could hear the cellist who often plays in front of the cathedral.

I stayed in an Airbnb studio apartment on Place Gutenberg, a famous square that was familiar from when I visited Strasbourg for the first time with Mary in December. We were there for the Marché du Noël, and this same Place was then home to the Portuguese section of the Christmas market. There I discovered pastéis de nata–sweet custard tarts with flaky shells–and hot orange juice, and went back for seconds…and thirds… The city was gorgeous, all lit up like a Christmas tree, but I loved it just as much here in February. What it missed in Christmas decorations it more than made up for in lack of tourists.img_7555

The apartment was charming. I could see the building when I stood on the cathedral’s platform, and I could see the cathedral from the front door of the building: it was a thirty-second walk away. I heard the bells chime from my balcony. Travel tip: when finding lodging, prize location. It was quite cold when the sun went down and the wind (which terrorized most of France this weekend) ripped through, but my uber-central location made it easy and enjoyable to get dinner or drinks every night, and I would have easily traded amenities for the treat of having the cathedral practically on my doorstep.

Strasbourg’s German history makes this city unique, and unlike anywhere else I’ve traveled in France, in Strasbourg I heard German spoken all the time, saw it on signs, et cetera.

As a linguistics nerd, I also find the Alsatian dialect really interesting. The French spoken in Strasbourg shows phonological differences from standard French but is particularly interesting in its lexical variety.

I was surprised to hear my Alsatian dinner date speaking conversational German with the server at a traditional restaurant we went to. “Everyone knows some German here,” he said shrugging. C’est normal.

I had munstiflette for dinner, the dish that may have been partly responsible for my return to Strasbourg. Who knew that munster cheese is not necessarily a lifeless orange block from the grocery store? Not I, until I visited Strasbourg. Other French-German specialities include choucroute (sauerkraut) served warm with sausages; schnitzel, Alsace wine, pretzels, apple strudel, and tarte flambée. Basically a thin-crust pizza with cream, onions, and lardons, tarte flambée is like other French foods in that, if you try one at an average restaurant, you’re likely to be unimpressed and wondering what all the fuss is about. If you find the real thing though…you will wonder how such a simple combination of ingredients leads to something so incredibly delicious.

Eating out was also a treat because of the service. Everywhere I went, people treated me with surprising warmth and familiarity. I’ve heard that Northerners are known for their friendliness, and based on my first encounters, I’d have to agree.

Strasbourg (or Alsace) seems like a good place to live, and it might be even be a reality. With the program I’m currently here teaching with, I have the option to request a contract renewal, and I have one choice for place preference. We’ll see if this gets my vote!

For now, I’m glad to have traveled alone like this. I never have before, unless you count taking a few flights and being picked up at the airport. The sense of independence it affords is exhilarating. Until the next, Strasbourg!