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.

winter wonderland: honeymoon in the swiss alps

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Switzerland in a word: cozy. As is my tendency, I had given the country an embarrassingly little amount of thought until I visited. Roger Federer. Watches? I had once been warned away from visiting for a weekend, told there was nothing to do.

But a short visit last week (our honeymoon!) was enough to pique my interest. Over hot chocolate, hot baths, and clean, cold air, I even forgot my aversion to winter. Switzerland (at least, the tiny part that I got to see) is not a bland, no man’s land, but a diverse, adventurer’s country that also happens to be extremely appealing in terms of aesthetics as well as gastronomy.

A few days after our wedding, with the big day still a blur in my mind, we set off on the seven-hour-drive from the outskirts of Paris to southwestern Switzerland.

We were staying in Crans-Montana, a resort town where Victor used to visit with his family. He had fond memories of skiing, warm plates of raclette, and time spent with his grandmother, but hadn’t been back for over a decade, when he was a teenager.

Crans-Montana is located in the Valais, one of the twenty-six cantons of Switzerland. Everyone around us spoke French, though we had to pay in Swiss francs instead of euros: beautiful printed bills on thick paper and shiny silver coins worth as much as 5 CHF apiece. While the Valais is French-speaking, Switzerland has four official languages: French, German, Italian, and Romansh, in a fascinating example of geographical boundaries influencing language. Where there be mountains, you can probably find some linguistic diversity.

But the causes aren’t all geographic. As this article explains, “Switzerland is a Willensnation, or nation of the will,” where the twenty-six cantons agree to work together, but without an especially powerful central government. As such, no uniquely Swiss language was ever imposed on the different cantons (which were once fully sovereign states).

We had plenty of time to explore our surroundings. We wouldn’t be doing any skiing, as we’d arrived a little early for the season, most likely missing the snow by a mere couple of weeks. Our plan, then, was simple. Hike in the mountains, refuel with stick-to-your-ribs winter food.

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Despite wheezing from a cold and the effect of the thin mountain air, standing at high altitudes next to a rushing waterfall or frosty lake felt exhilarating. Under full sun, the snow glittered. Everywhere were tiny chalets. They dotted the ice-blue mountainsides, looking sweet and lonely. The air smelled of pine. Icicles sat poised on cliffs overhead like daggers waiting to fall. (I always tiptoed past them, remembering what I’d heard about an icicle being the perfect murder weapon.)

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Restaurants sat hidden in hills, far away from the rest of civilization. They catered to hikers and skiers, offering an improbable refuge (and likely, fondue). Inside, these places had low ceilings, lace curtains, folksy printed tablecloths, and depictions of woodland creatures like something out of a wintry children’s book by Jan Brett.

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Swiss cuisine, our regime for the week, was a mash-up of offerings from the surrounding countries. On a menu board next to a typical boeuf bourguignon or German choucroute with sausages, you’d find several varieties of fondue, sausages made from veal, potato rösti (like a big hash brown), raclette (melted raclette cheese served with potatoes, charcuterie, cornichons), and croûte au fromage (like the best grilled cheese sandwich you’ve ever had, eaten with a fork).

We tried everything, even returning to the same restaurant three times when their fondue proved addictive. It’s the perfect date food, the gastronomic equivalent of a hug or a fair-isle sweater.

“make no little plans”: in chicago, the road trip begins

When Victor came to visit for two weeks in July, our travel plans were quite literally a rough sketch. The napkin on which I had scribbled ideas during a phone call became the backbone of our road trip.

As the day of Victor’s flight approached, we had little more than city names, a few reserved AirBnbs, and a lot of anticipation.

Trepidation, too. Victor, aviation enthusiast, happens to hate flying. Cold sweat, shaking hands, “I need a cigarette” kind of fear. This Boeing 747-8 would be the biggest plane he’d ever taken. It would be his longest flight to date and his first time in the United States.

I was anxious too–seeking job opportunities with no answers; hoping with all I had that our young relationship would translate from Facetime back into real time after a month apart.

We met in Chicago at the airport. I called him: I’m in your terminal, next to the McDonald’s. Welcome to the USA.

Despite his rumpled, post-flight appearance–expression equal parts fatigue and joy–Victor had that shimmering quality to be found in loved ones you haven’t seen for awhile. Be it friendship or romance, you can’t stop staring. A state of happy shock: it’s the one you love, no longer tinny-voiced, pixelated, stuffed into a screen. The heart rejoices, always with some degree of relief. They’re real. I knew it. The anxiety of absence dissipates instantly like they never left, or you never did.

We proceeded to the rental agency to pick up our noble white steed for the duration of the trip: a little Mustang convertible. Despite having just staggered off the plane, Victor drove us into the city. It was too hot to have the top down, but we did anyway, shouting over wind and music. Semi trucks and billboards didn’t make for the prettiest tableau, but something about it felt exotic to Victor. I just can’t believe I’m here, he kept saying. J’arrive pas à le croire. It’s just like a movie.

When the smoky skyline popped into view, I took a picture for him, which I would do for much of the trip as co-pilot. The green-and-white signs announcing nearby cities, signs warning to watch for Amish horse-and-buggies, a fleet of police officers on Harley Davidsons…all of it was fair game.

In Chicago I pointed out the Midwestern friendliness I find striking for such a big city. We were unabashed tourists–posing with the Bean, taking the riverboat architectural tour to learn what percentage of Chicago burned to the ground in 1871, riding a wheezing double-decker bus in a lurching path around the city.

We ate hotdogs with mustard and drank huge lemonades from the stands by the lake. In an attempt to show Victor American breakfast culture, I took him to a donut place where we ordered chocolate pastries the size of our heads. He gawked at the deep-dish pizza at Giordano’s.

It felt appropriate to introduce Victor to my country with such a city. A big one. With tall buildings and endless pizza and a lake you could mistake for a sea.

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.

-architect Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912)

floating relic: venice by gondola

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Venice by sandolo

I was content to keep exploring Venice on foot. While the idea of a gondola ride had its intrigue–is there anything more uniquely Venetian?–in reality the excursions looked less than romantic. From where I stood–on bridges, mostly, peering down into the polished boats–I saw sullen gondoliers wordlessly transporting families of six who videotaped the entire experience. I watched young couples who flicked through their phones and barely regarded each other or Venice as they were swept through the city’s canals.

Any charm seemed in danger of suffocation by the fierce overhead glare of the sun and the thick crowds on the Rialto Bridge. People were jostling, posing, and dripping gelato on the steps as one boat after another passed through the main waterways, nearly bumping up against one another as if this were Disney’s It’s a Small World instead of a private, 80-euro experience.

As I walked, though, with Victor, wandering far from the densest masses of crowd, I fell for the empty gondolas. Bobbing gently in quiet corners of the canals, their onyx-black hulls glittered in the sun, modest quests for attention. Their distinctive color, I later learned, dates back to 16th-century law: an attempt to halt gaudy competition between gondoliers.

Still, each gondola I saw was unique. Their interiors were scarlet and gold, or occasionally, cobalt blue. They held bright rugs and gold vases filled with sunflowers and glossy wooden chairs with floral upholstery and red cushions with white lions. Gold mermaids and winged horses and angels leapt from the sides.

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The gondolas were perfect objects, indisputably beautiful. The gleaming wood and elegant curves brought to mind musical instruments: the grand, glossy elegance of a cello or bass.

Italy is known to prize the aesthetic, with its concept of bella figura, its reverence for beauty and grace. This Cadillac of a boat, I thought, was a good example: moving at 3 miles an hour, walking pace, the gondola is a relic in the 21st century, wholly unnecessary and fully lovely. ACS_1031

It takes about two months to construct a gondola and costs upwards of 20,000 euros to purchase one. Eight types of wood–cherry, elm, fir, larch, lime, mahogany, oak, and walnut–are joined together in an ingenious, flat-bottomed design that allows the boat to navigate in water just centimeters deep.

There seemed no better way to directly experience Venice’s aquatic history than by getting into a boat. We decided to go for it, in our last full day in the city, as long as we could find one a bit off the beaten path.

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Gondola rides are price-controlled, currently eighty euros for a standard daytime ride and one hundred at night. But shopping around is worth it, as the experience differs greatly depending upon the starting point and the personality of the gondolier.

Victor and I walked until we found the neighborhood we remembered from a previous stroll. I don’t know how we found it, really. The endless tiny streets–some of them dead-ending into the canal–confounded my navigation apps, not to mention my nascent sense of direction.

We were in the quiet Campo del Ghetto, the Jewish neighborhood dating back to the 16th century. The English word ghetto originates from Venetian dialect geto, meaning ‘foundry,’ and this was the area’s purpose before Jews were isolated and forced to live there. Campo del Ghetto was cut off from the city until 1797, when Napoleon conquered Venice and ended the neighborhood’s separation. Today, the Ghetto is a calm area with a Holocaust memorial and five synagogues.

We saw a boat coming in and waited by stone steps leading into the canal. The gondola was piloted by a woman– a sight rare enough to be striking, but I didn’t yet know how rare. Researching it, I learned there are so few women gondoliers that you can know them by name. Their names are Giorgia Boscolo and Chiara Curto: out of about 400 total gondoliers, there are two women.

Ms. Curto was the woman steering the boat up to the foot of the bridge, smiling and ruddy-cheeked. But she told us she was booked for the rest of the afternoon. It had been a day where we kept running into Closed signs; it seemed a fitting, disappointing end. But then she said she had availability for the sunset tour. She made a note and we hurried off into the maze of streets.  acs_0833

Freshly showered (and wearing distinctly clashing outfits), Victor and I returned a few hours later. The water and buildings shone soft pastel in the waning sun. Ms. Curto helped us into the boat, and then hopped up on the nearby bridge to take our picture. I didn’t have to fake my smile (and couldn’t have stopped it if I tried). If there’s ever a place to be a fool in love, it’s on a boat in Venice.

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Victor noticed the gondola didn’t have the distinctive iron ornament (the fèrro) that we’d spotted on the front of the other boats. That’s when we learned we weren’t in a gondola at all but a sandolo. Sandoli are wider and flatter than gondolas, used for rowing. They can access shallow spots in Venice most gondoliers wouldn’t go. They are also, Ms. Curto told us, even older and more traditional than the gondola.

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Chiara didn’t sing, but she was full of stories. In brief silences, the only sound was the oar moving through the water. We swept under bridges–Ms. Curto deftly ducking out of the way–and past churches, bars, and boats. We glided under laundry, the great equalizer, a cheerful reminder that behind these flung-open shutters and crumbling brick walls life churned on, messy and mundane. Whole duvets hung out to dry on the pulley systems spanning the canals.

As Chiara steered the boat back to the foot of the bridge, I stirred, dreamy-eyed, like I was waking from slumber. As in sleep, time had ticked by in secret, and the half-hour outing felt as if we should measure it in seconds.

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I wondered what would it be like to be any one of them. To work standing up in a boat, battling the cold and the sunburn. To bask in beginnings, to witness the unveiling of so many shining engagement rings. Might you be cynical, a poet, or some combination?

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Might you be proud: carrying on a centuries-old tradition that is in no way vital to the city’s operations…but surely vital to its heart.

the city of islands: death by tourism?

Venezia is a city composed of tiny islands. 120 of them, spanned by 400 bridges. Wooden or stone, humble or showy, everywhere bridges. Every time you cross a bridge you step onto a new island. 

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Long ago, these borders determined micro-communities, islands like tribes. People didn’t know their neighbors across the water. The communities were self-sufficient, each served by its own church. This explains why Venice is absolutely frothing with churches–from modest works of brick to candy-cane-striped Venetian gothic facades to the grand onion domes of the basilica–quite literally sinking under the weight of all that glory. 

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In addition to heaviness and high water, it seems Venice faces another, more insidious threat: death by tourism. 

Today, when you cross a bridge, you step foot upon layers of history and human invention. Your shoes touch the worn-smooth stone of another cobbled island atop layers of foundation atop sturdy wooden piles shoved into the cold mud of a lagoon in the Adriatic sea. Improbable. And it fascinates. Surrounded by teal water and nautical chaos–daily deliveries made by worn motor boats, the glide of gondolas under canal bridges–I feel fairy-tale free. Venice feels like a place of no rules–new rules–a place where animals could talk, time could stop. A stooped man plays the viola on a corner overlooking the frenzy of the Grand Canal, music so beautiful it sounds like a gift. Many times I abandon my plan in favor of sitting to savor a scene, a sound. 

Yet. Competing with this beauty is the kind of tourism that drowns a place. Cross a bridge today and there is more of the same: not just the aperol spritzes and jewel-toned gelato, but more junk. There are vendors selling cheap plastic selfie sticks, cheap plastic everything, mass-produced “paintings,” “designer” bags…whole categories that must be put in quotation marks. There are aprons with pictures of Leonardo’s David (who does not reside in Venice, last time I checked); there are tee-shirts with the Mona Lisa. There are restaurants whose menus read like a list of obligatory “Italian” specialties. There are aggressive salesmen and signs in ten languages.

On some streets, it doesn’t feel much like Venice, or Italy, or anywhere. It feels like a whole new world: the land of globalization. You could be in Paris or New York. You could be in an aggressively-peopled dollar store. You know it’s Venice, though, because these stores and stands and hats and handbags and posters and magnets and towels and water bottles and keychains tell you so: VENICE, no beating around the bush. Look a little closer, though, and ah, there it is: made in China. 

Nothing revolutionary: this is the price to pay, you may argue, for popularity. This is 21st-century travel.

Venice, though, is no New York or Paris. It is infinitely smaller and much more delicate. The majority of Venice’s 30 million yearly visitors flood the city for less than twenty-four hours.  

This approach to Venice–a whirlwind tour like a day at Disney–hurts Venetian businesses, culture, and citizens: of whom there are only 50,000. Venice sees about that many visitors every day. The exponential growth of tourism in the area means that everyday businesses like grocers and bookstores are closing, priced out by more and more souvenir shops. It’s an expensive city to visit–and to live. But the city is working towards a solution, promoting detourism: a campaign aimed at teaching visitors how to “go beyond the usual tourist sights, stumble upon unique experiences and see Venice with new eyes.”

Victor and I took a free walking tour that is part of the campaign to #enjoyrespectvenezia.

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The website explains: Venice Free Walking Tour is for those who want to see and know more than the 90% of people visiting Venice will see. Venice Free Walking Tour is for Travellers, not for tourists

Our guide was Elena, Italian, in her late twenties with red hair and glasses, all charm and energy. She introduced herself, telling us she studied literature and history and languages. Victor nudged me: I think you found a new friend. I was thinking the same thing. Her passion about Venice, both its past and its unknowable future, had me intrigued, leaning forward and writing down most of what she said. She had moved to Venice temporarily, she told us–for studies–but plans changed when she fell in love (with the city and one of its residents). 

She told us many dreamy details of Venice. There were stories of Venice’s cemetery island (hosting the graves of Ezra Pound and Stravinsky). We passed a grand old building with frescos on the walls that now holds a basketball court, because the city didn’t know what else to do with the space. She told us about a small grocery store in a marble-floored theater. We talked St. Mark and chiaroscuro and what those symbols on the ground meant– little letters everywhere; codes for city engineers.

I am saddened by the touristic tendency to consume a place: to bury it under cheap knickknacks, to aggressively photograph it, to patronize only that which is obvious, to leave none the wiser.

But, if this initiative is any indication: there is hope.

At the end of the tour, we were given a map marked with recommendations for bars, restaurants, shops, and more, so even the most casual tourist-traveler could get a real taste of Venice. Elena told us what to look for, what to order.

We left hungry and found one of the restaurants on the list, where we shared a plate of nero di seppie: cuttlefish cooked in its ink. The dish had a delicate, complex umami flavor and was a deep black that stained our mouths. Accompanied by bright-orange aperol and a caprese salad, the spread was a visual treat, and the meal marks one of my favorite moments in Venice with my chéri: happy with a cold cocktail after a day of sun, alight with new perspectives and ideas.