Champagne and Trains [Swiss Alps]
I found myself tangled amidst the Christmas decorations of a Chalet in a Swiss village called Grimentz. My hair has a mind of its own, and always gets tangled in ways such as this. I was with a lad I met on public transportation in New Orleans two and a half years before, when he was stumbling around and lost at 4:30 in the morning.
The night I met Sebastian in 2014, he was near the beginning of his all-American road trip. He was completely obsessed with Alabama, and just spent his first and only night in New Orleans on Bourbon Street with his friend Tom. After we figured out the streetcar together (which behaves peculiarly in the middle of the night) I persuaded them to stay with me the next night and let me show them the real New Orleans before moving on to Texas. I couldn’t, in good conscience, let them leave having only seen the armpit of the city. They did. We had a blast. They moved on. We kept in touch.
Sebastian knew I was in Europe these days and invited me to share Christmas with his charming family in rural England, but I already had plans. I invited him to spend New Years Eve with me but he had to work.
“If you’d like, though, right after New Years, I’m headed with my family to our Chalet in the Swiss Alps! You’re welcome to join.”
Oh, sure, let me see if I can fit it in.
I decided to go there after spending New Years in Paris. So there I was in the Geneva airport searching for a man I’d only met once, and his mother called Linda. I must admit I didn’t know which language they spoke in Geneva. Switzerland, though small, absolutely has three languages depending on which border you’re closest to. Once I found them, Seb’s dad John valiantly drove us in his backwards car through the windy roads deeper into the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t see where we were, but I could feel the mountains growing taller around us in the darkness. John bought this house when it was in ruins a few years back, and used his carpentry experience to fix it up himself. It was the absolute definition of cozy.
After a few slices of some dense Christmas cake that had been soaked in whiskey for 6 weeks, and soaking ourselves in a little liquor as well, John and Linda went to bed and Sebastian and I made up for lost time. So much had happened in the past 3 years and it took forever to catch up on it all. His mother encouraged us to stay in the same room so there would be “less washing” to do after. Hilarious, wing- woman Linda.
It is true, though, that the only thing better than staying for free in a chalet in the Alps, is cuddling with a relative stranger next to a fire in a chalet in the Swiss Alps.
They were all complaining about the lack of snow-fall this year. Global warming, they said. Global Warming. It did seem a bit bare, but still plenty cold for a southern girl such as myself.
The next morning I woke up to actually see where I was. Nestled amongst giants in a valley. The snow visited us the night before. Blueberry pancakes for breakfast. Delightful British accents saying things like “toasties” and “Breakfasts” and “Aye-pricots.”
Sebastian’s sister’s ski-gear fit me better than my own clothes, as luck would have it. I hadn’t skied since I was 12 years old, and assumed it would come back to me like riding a bike, but I couldn’t be sure. We went to a steep, foggy mountain nearby that was covered in ice, for starters. Keep Calm and Carry On. Get your ski legs back. Steal kisses in the Gondola. Repeat.
Next thing I knew I was going back down black diamonds, but my goggles were iced over and it’s a miracle I didn’t actually get injured. Mexican feast for dinner. I made my famous guacamole (they don’t pronounce the e) and it was so lovely to sit around a table full of people I could easily communicate with.
The next day we were on a wood-lined, orange train winding through the sharp ridges of the Alps, my nose pressed against the window through every turn. We were in Zermatt, which is a car-free village in the German part of Switzerland, famed for being one of the most beautiful ski resorts in all the world.
"Wow! That's so progressive! How long have they been car-free?"
"They've always been car free."
You park outside the village and take a train in, where you’re met with horse-drawn carriages, electric cars, storybook, timber-framed houses with snow-capped roofs, and Swiss-army knife shops. We got tickets for the yellow train, which I thought would function more or less like a gondola and take us to the top. I didn’t realize it would be a luxuriously languorous ride that takes a glorious 35 minutes to reach the top. I was completely enthralled. I saw a deer-goat thing called a Chamois, I saw the little storybook village from above, then, at last, I saw the Matterhorn.
I hadn’t realized what the Matterhorn was until this moment, and it was breath-taking. This must be where the Grinch lives. We reached the end of the line, at the base of that glorious peak, and stumbled out into the sunshine.
“WHERE ARE WE?”
“The Matterhorn, darling.”
“You’ve got to make yourself useful for at least a moment.”
“Take a good picture of me in front of my favorite mountain.”
“OH, of course.”
We clunked our way up a little hill in the robo-cop-like fashion one must adopt when walking in ski boots, and found a perfect view of that exquisite summit. I got out my camera.
“No! It’s cold and I have a better angle of you standing up.”
“Dammit, Olivia. Just sit down.”
He got out a bottle of champagne, two champagne flutes, and a bar of Toblerone chocolate, which seemingly had the exact same view of the Matterhorn on the label as we did right in front of us.
What is life?
He poured two glasses and began to read a poem by his favorite author that happened to be about Zermatt.
“Hues of rose, far stretched beneath the many tinted hills…”
I’m not sure if life gets better than that, folks.
“Sebastian, you total romantic, you.”
“I thought of proposing to you, but I thought champagne was necessary first.”
“I wish you HAD proposed, because whoever does it someday in the future won’t be as romantic as this.”
“You do realize if we got married, your name would be Olivia Motley-Chew? I would absolutely change my last name to the hyphenated version as well, because that name is too good to pass up.”
Snogging on top of the world.
I got his good picture he wanted.
The sky was cloudless and my goggles weren’t fogging this time, so we zipped down that mountain again and again all day. Easily the best ski-day of my life. Sebastian is actually a really confident and competent skier, and was nice enough to wait for me at the bottom over and over again as he blasted down each run. He was equally patient with my speaking in my fake British accent all day, which I couldn’t seem to snap out of. He recited Shakespeare on the lift rides up and sometimes we held hands on the runs down, like total goobers.
We had expensive mulled wine at the bottom of the runs for my my first “après” at a hilarious smoky, electro-music bar with a walkabout guitarist called “International Naughty Boy” delighting us with his presence. We danced, then walked down and walked through a cemetery of people who had all died tring to climb the Matterhorn. My phone kept freezing and shutting off. It was some of the coldest weather I’ve experienced, but romance and mulled wine kept thawing me out.
Back at the chalet, John and Linda cooked us fondue. It’s some-kind-of liberating when you can just dip bread into melted cheese with wine in it and call it a meal.
We had to wake up extremely early for Linda to drive me in their backwards mini-van to the nearest station, where I would take a train back to the airport. She asked us when we would see each other again, we said we didn’t know. We’d been daydreaming of traveling together, but had no solid plans.
Sooner than later, we said.
Three weeks later I called Sebastian and found out he had a new girlfriend.
I was pretty bummed at the time, but now I see that romance like that can’t survive the test of time, and sometimes it’s better to let it exist in its perfect moment and move on. We remain close friends to this day, and will both always have a soft spot for Switzerland, and for meeting people on New Orleans Public Transportation at 4:30 in the morning.