I sip espresso at the ledge of the bridge and tear off a piece of my baguette to share with the swans swimming below. I wonder how the Lake of Lucerne hasn’t frozen over yet in this arctic winter, and how the people standing around can possibly bare their fingers exposed to smoke cigarettes. Since arriving in Switzerland, I’ve gotten used to the constant stream of tobacco in the city air. I’ve even indulged on a few occasions; it’s hard not to when one in three residents smokes. Nearly everyone offers me a drag or a even a whole cigarette on a daily basis.
Despite nearly frostbitten fingers, I’m here to admire the famous Chapel Bridge. Built in
the 14th century, the landmark still holds its medieval charm, sporting Gothic paintings on
the gables under the roof above. It was rebuilt in 1993 after a supposed cigarette-infused fire. Go figure.
To keep blood flowing, I continue the walking tour to Schwanenplatz, or Swans’ Square, the center of the city’s old downtown area. I meander through quiet stone streets past
tall, skinny buildings with colorful shutters, passing boutiques and coiffeurs along the way. I feel the age of this place.
I’m relieved when sight-seeing is accomplished and it’s time to retreat inside and
meet my lunch dates. I’ve been staying with a friend who has a cousin who has a second
cousin whose aunt, or maybe mother, I’ll be dining with. The emphasis on family, even extended family, in Switzerland is exceptional.
As the guest of the house, I’ve been invited to meet practically every blood relative of my hosts, who insisted that we make a stop to say hello to during our daytrip to Lucerne. I walk by a neat row of oddly shaped marroni, or chestnut, trees past the river as we leave downtown. I purchase a local favorite, roasted chestnuts, or make-shift hand warmers, from a street vendor before heading to the suburbs.
A graying woman answers the door. She’s sporting a red fleece zip-up vest and matching
clogs. Her lanky husband stands behind her. They kiss me three times from cheek to cheek in typical Swiss fashion.
The kind strangers welcome me into their humble entryway. I follow them up narrow
stairs to a tiny kitchen, where pots and pans and cookbooks and vases of flowers are placed in every spare inch of space in cabinets and on shelves. In general, the Swiss give themselves no luxury of extra space. And they don’t seem to need, or even want it. Houses, even the finest and most expensive, are small and organized, using every inch.
Our hostess quickly finishes up her lunch preparations and invites me to the dining room,
where we sit patiently, attempting conversation, unsuccessfully. I speak a touch of French, which happens to be one of Switzerland’s four national languages, but our new acquaintances only speak German. We exchange many smiles and nods, and every now and then we discover a word to which all of us can relate. Before lunch is served we rejoice in our common understanding of “college,” or “university.” During lunch the hostess and I both point to one of the dishes and say “cheese” in unison – never before has the word “cheese” been so hilarious.
Cheese is an integral part of Swiss cuisine, served as an element of almost every meal. Brie swiped on bread makes for a typical morning in Europe, and cubes of veggies and apples are dunked into fondue pots in the evenings. This afternoon we’re feasting on Älpnermacronen, macaroni of the Alps, or the ultimate comfort food, as I like to call it. The dish begins with squared boiled potatoes combined with macaroni noodles. Added to the mix is a splash of cream, the spices Aromat and nutmeg, and melted Sbrinz, a traditional Swiss cheese. Our hostess sprinkles the mixture with caramelized onions, scoops hearty portions for us, and then drenches each plate with a top layer of warm applesauce. That’s right –applesauce. The meal is just as rich and filling as it sounds, and surprisingly delicious.
As I savor my macaroni, my eyes scan the petite room. Through the glass sliding door, I
notice there is a salad bowl filled with mixed greens sitting out on the icy deck. I point to
it inquisitively, and our hosts exchange words in German before both looking back at me
to announce, “leftovers.” During the winter months, Switzerland’s balconies double as
refrigerators, most likely to save more space, and maybe a few Swiss franks. Already I’d walk out a back door to kick a six-pack of soda or a chilling bottle of wine.
I extend my glance up toward the skyline, where fog is settling over the Alps outside
the cottage. Our host catches me looking and motions as if he’s driving a steering wheel. He’s grinning. I don’t have time to wonder what he’s trying to signal to me, because he’s already halfway down his stairs, motioning for me to follow. I hastily layer on my several zip-ups and boots and hats and parkas to venture back in the bitter European winter to follow the eager mountain man.
The lunch party piles into his teeny Volkswagon Sciroc, which is cramped compared
to the massive SUVs to which I’m accustomed. I body slam into the other passengers as he whizzes around multiple traffic roundabouts. When the Swiss aren’t taking some form of mass transit they’re driving on roundabouts that have been proven to reduce gas usage, and more importantly carbon emissions. Those fresh gulps of air I’ve been savoring (only when I’m out of the urban cigarette haze, of course) are actually pretty pure, not just psychologically created by my gazing at the blue mountains.
When the car stops at the top of a grassy hill, we unfold ourselves and step into a postcard. In front of us on the emerald grass we can see goats grazing next to a red, wooden farmhouse. Farther out into the distance is a thick layer of fog and cloud; it hovers like a blanket, concealing the mountains we know are hiding beneath. The only parts of them we can see are the steep peaks peeking out at the top of the cloud. Somehow we’ve been blessed with a sunny afternoon, and the sky behind our mountain panorama sparkles sapphire blue. I’m thinking if I walk closer I’ll smack into the billboard displaying this perfect image.
I look at my hospitable lunch hosts and wonder what’s running through their minds. I’d assumed that living here, they might be used to their picturesque surroundings, but they seem equally entranced by the scene in front of us.