Academic Travel: Lost in the Alps

Gite du Prilett

13 October 2009, 18.50

  Mon dieu! The mountains, the nature, Switzerland, LIFE OH EPIC LIFE!!! Today has been marvelous. A Norwegian-style breakfast started the day minutes before we departed into the cold, as bundled in warm clothing as our baggage would permit. A short hike, promised SSB. Up into the sunlight to get a view of the Matterhorn. Unlike the blustery nature of the day before, not a single cloud marred the untouched blue of the heavens, and the frosted vegetation splintered under our shoes with a satisfying crunch.

      Kyle and I were assigned to the task of keeping track of the slowest members of our group, and here, group travel proved difficult as we fought the temptation to run up into the mountains as far as our feet would carry us. We lingered, we meandered, we lagged behind in an impressive display of patience. After some considerable time shuffling slowly through Chandolin, St. Luc and under a funicular, we arrived at the top of a hill. Incredible panoramic views of the Alps lay before us. SSB deemed us free from our duties. Soon enough, the less motivated students were far behind, and locating our new destination, the road home, became of growing importance. Together with SSB, Thomas, Cam, Kyle and Adrienne, I bounded up the mountain path with surprising energy despite the altitude. SSB had done the hike before, but we wandered in circles, lapping the non-outdoorsmen among us, who nibbled on cookies as they trudged onwards in their fatigue. We tried another trail. The clock was ticking, and our writing workshop with Anne Deriaz, author of Cher Ella, drew closer with each passing second. Where were we? Adrienne seemed tired and pensive, but the boys and I were full of excited energy and begged SSB to let us continue upwards, finding the trail down in the next valley instead of turning back and retracing our steps.

 “It’s really steep,” warned SSB. “Like fall-on-your-ass steep.” We should look for a sign reading ‘Le Prilet par les cascades’ or something to that effect. We skipped up the path with even more energy than before. Kyle proclaimed that his goal, no matter how far our detour took us, was to make it home before Stefania. (Stefania had attempted to depart on a hike in heels the day before). Up and up the path wound, through forests of golden pine needles, through pastures speckled with wildflowers, over glacial streams trickling over mossy rocks – all with the majestic peaks of the Alps rising around us in the ultimate backdrop. I began to doubt our plan, and halfheartedly suggested we turn around, but the three young men outnumbered my weak attempt, and we continued towards the Weisshorn.

   Suddenly, the trees cleared, and we stood awestruck in a wide, snowy valley marking the base of the palisades towering over us. The pristine white snow, the fiery yellow trees, and the stark blue of the sky contrasted in a brilliant display of nature’s colorful beauty. I experienced a wave of intense euphoria taking over me, and upon prancing joyfully ahead, found the sign directing us back to Gite du Prilett! Saved! The ‘par les cascades’ sign was there as well, and we descended from the valley down a series of steep alpine ski slopes. Throwing caution aside (and fearing the ice that could send me sliding if my feet were to linger too long in one place), I ran almost the entire way down the mountain, talking with the guys and watching amusedly as Thomas surfed the slope boarder-style on the traction-free soles of his skater shoes. The sensation of the icy air tousling my hair and numbing my face, the snow crunching under my feet and the adrenaline of the alpine scenery flying by as I sprinted down the mountain – nothing could be more beautiful in that moment, and I laughed in disbelief at how amazing an experience life had brought me, yet again.

    Back at the Gite du Prilett, we waited for the rest of our group (who, yes, we had beat to the bottom!) and met Anne Deriaz, the writer conducting our writing workshop. Although her English was intermediate, the 70-year-old woman led us through a series of exercises designed to let loose a stream of creativity surely hiding somewhere in our minds. It proved effective, and it was with great interest that I listened to the overwhelming differences present among my fellow students’ writing.

   Three forty-five arrived with a disappointing suddenness, ending our workshop. We walked to an ancient bakery where, years ago, the people of St. Luc would bake bread 3 times a year. In hand-carved wooden troughs, we had the opportunity to knead, shape, and design individual loaves of rustic alpine rye bread. I used a knife to carve a swirling spiral into the rough dough, and handed it to a smiling baker, who shoveled it into a stone oven outside. Late afternoon sun illuminated the quaint rooftops and flowering window boxes of St. Luc, drawing the focus, for one second, away from the famous mountains looming behind it.

    While our bread baked, we assembled in a sun-filled room above the bakery, walls lined with golden wood and rows of windows. Some girls in our group gave a presentation on Anne Deriaz – made a bit more nerve-wracking, I would assume, by the fact that she was there herself, listening intently and making corrections where needed. They gave a brief summary of her life, how she escaped from home at 16 to study, later winning a prize for literature – her relationship with Ella Maillart in the last years of her life, and her insight gained from a lifetime as a writer.

   “It is in the little things- to bake bread, to drink wine- in the little things are great truths,” she said slowly, forming sentences carefully through her thick Swiss accent. I considered this as I sipped the white wine poured to me by the smiling baker. I thought of Anne and Ella’s relationship – how the smallest shifts in a daily routine spoke the loudest. In the fast-paced American life I grew up in, we have perhaps lost this simplicity. The feeling of contentment there, breathing alpine air between sips of wine while bread baked below – was unparalleled. I shuddered at the thought of returning to Lugano – to the day-to-day mess of schoolwork, of caffeine and late nights, of stress and frustration. If only life could be as pure, as simple, as there in Chandolin.

   After being served our bread steaming hot from the oven, we returned home and began to prepare for fondue – according to SSB, an all-night affair. Drinking water would make us sick, she claimed. Only white wine and hot tea would be served. We took our seats and were served great steaming pots of cheese, which we dipped bread and potatoes in for hours. A more delicious dinner cannot be imagined, and with all luck, such a quantity of cheese will never again be consumed. After a blueberry pie dessert featuring legitimate alpine blueberries, we returned upstairs and enjoyed a 3-franc bottle of wine Kyle had purchased at Coop. The rest of the night was a happy blur of incredible stargazing, of a limited Norwegian vocabulary, of stories from our childhoods and old TV shows.

   The fondue, however, plagued my stomach all night, and several times threatened to drive me to legitimate sickness.


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