The Bliss of Being Swiss

Gruyere is a village that time forgot, but it makes some of the world's most unforgettable cheese!

A paddleboat takes visitors from city to city along Lake Geneva. Every inch of the antique boat is pristinely restored.

Just returned from a trip to Switzerland, where we are lucky to have family members.  Despite a forecast of rain, we enjoyed a glorious five days there, most of them blessed by blue skies and vistas of the Alps unimpeded by clouds or mist.

Switzerland routinely turns up on all the lists of the world’s most expensive places to live, and after I visited I realized why so many wealthy people want to live there.  Its picturesque villages, clean air and central European location are only part of the appeal.  It’s also a place that values quiet, tradition and the older, slower ways of doing things.  You can’t help but slow down there. In fact, after returning home a few days ago I canceled a few appointments in gratitude to Switzerland.

For example:

Switzerland still makes watches with hands.

Chocolate, cheese, croissants and wine are basic food groups. Can’t get much better than that.

You can walk from town to town along Lake Geneva, which has many picturesque pathways along its shores.  Great for burning off the chocolate, cheese and wine.

Gruyere, made in gruyere, is the big wheel of cheese.

One of hundreds of drawers holding fanciful type for projects created one letter at a time at Le Cadratin, in downtown Vevey.

Gruyere, a cheese-making mecca, is located near the top of a mountain there.  It’s a beautiful old city, built around a real castle, with cobblestone streets.

Switzerland never stopped serving fondue (we ate at a wonderful restaurant where waiters brought out the Swiss flag and played the Swiss national anthem with every serving of fondue.)

Downtown Vevey, an hour from Geneva, is home to Le Cadratin, a print shop that still makes the printing plates by hand.  It has hundreds of drawers of tiny metal plugs, each with a single letter, all organized by type face and size.  It uses antique printing presses for a textural richness that digital printing can’t match.

In Switzerland if you make a restaurant reservation, they give you the table for the entire night.  This was a godsend when we were late for our reservation at a mountaintop restaurant because we took a wrong turn and drove up the wrong mountain.

Switzerland loves great music and musicians.  Branford Marsalis played at a jazz festival last week in the tiny town of Cully. Sting has stayed at the chalet of a jazz impresario in Switzerland, and Queen’s Freddie Mercury made Montreaux his final home when he was dying of AIDS.

A restaurant in downtown La Tour de Peilz serves fondue with a flourish...waiters bring out the Swiss flag and a three-foot pepper grinder, and the sound system plays the Swiss national anthem.

Nestle, headquartered in Vevey, saved the great Caillers chocolate company from financial ruin in the 1920s…thus enabling Caillers to save future generations of chocolate lovers from their own great depressions through chocolate’s restorative qualities.

The Swiss like to air-kiss three times (which means one cheek gets shortchanged, but who cares?)

A proper Swiss toast includes champagne or Swiss wine, the word “santé!” (meaning “health”) and serious eye contact with each fellow reveler/toaster.

Finally, and this is no small point…the Swiss love their dogs and well-behaved pets are welcome anywhere.

Of course, Switzerland is not perfect.  You can’t find Crest toothpaste, Arm & Hammer baking soda and canned pumpkin there, as our family members there will lament.   But it’s a small price to pay!

God save the Queen, and Freddie Mercury, whose statue is displayed in downtown Montreaux.

 

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Where did I misplace my youth?

My husband and I were rearranging furniture in our bedroom the other day when I found a photo of myself that I had not seen in decades. We had taken out the drawers in our bureau so that we could move it, and I had grabbed the hand vacuum to clean the dust out of the openings where the drawers fit in.

A 3-by-5 white rectangle was facedown on the bottom of the slot for the top drawer. I reached into the empty hole, pulled it out, turned it over and felt a wave of shock.

The photo showed me with my first husband at a wedding, half my lifetime ago. Hadn’t seen that photo in at least 20 years; that’s how long it dwelled under my sock drawer. I was a year older than my daughter is now. My face was unlined, my hair longer and more luxuriant and not yet needing hair dye. I was 10 pounds thinner and free of the sorry-looking bags that are a permanent part of the midlife body. We were smiling and our faces were free from care. A few empty glasses that once held wine are on the table.

I try not to look at photos of myself, especially those from long ago. Despite our efforts to take care of ourselves, we never quite recapture the carefree beauty of our 20s, when we think we will never grow old.

A few years ago a commencement speech attributed to Kurt Vonnegut stressed that youth is fleeting and we’d better appreciate it while we still have it. While it was later debunked (Vonnegut never gave that speech; it was an urban legend that spread on the internet), one passage stands out:

“Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.”

It’s hard to look youthful after a certain age without looking as if you are trying too hard. And despite the wisdom we gain from decades of experience, accomplishments and mistakes, our faces and bodies do suffer in the process. Trying to keep the ravages of time at bay requires great genes, relentless discipline, over-the-top vanity or some combination of the three. (But mostly great genes.) An old photo and a mirror provide a jarring report card of how well we managed.

So does it matter if the years have not been kind? Not really. I’ve been too busy living my life and enjoying my loved ones to dwell on these things. Until I look at a 30-year-old photo.

And that’s why the photo was quickly tossed into a drawer and covered up with a mound of socks. The practical and unglamorous kind that keep my feet warm.

“You’re still beautiful,” Bob said as we moved the bureau into its new place.

A Life Both Ordinary and Extraordinary

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My Aunt Rita (center), with her sisters Chickie (left) and Theresa (right) in their prime. Rita died recently at age 91.

In 1982 I read a copy of a speech by Jeffrey R. Holland, then President of Brigham Young University, about how stay-at-home mothers are undervalued.  I don’t agree with the Mormons about a lot of things but I saved that speech.

Holland told the attendees at the American Mother of the Year Convention that women who devote their lives to their children can have as profound an impact on society as Nobel Prizewinners.

“How do you get the world to notice the mother who gave her daughter the courage to run for student body president?” Holland said. “Would ’60 Minutes’ tell the story of a widow who made baby clothes for each arrival in the neighborhood?  Could we build a best seller around the mother who silently but meticulously raised an honest accountant, a high school teacher, a medical doctor or a concert pianist?  Yet the sons or daughters of mothers make our society honest or dishonest, educated or uneducated, healthy or unhealthy, lovely or unlovely.”

I thought about this last week when I traveled to suburban Philadelphia for my Aunt Rita’s funeral.  While it was sad to lose her, it was great to reconnect with my dozens of cousins, some of whom I had not seen in at least 15 years.  Aunt Rita was 91 when she died, and luckily stayed in great health until her last three weeks or so.  And she died surrounded by her family, which along with her faith was her only career.

We paid our respects in the town where we all grew up and where Aunt Rita had lived nearly all her life.  The wake was at the same funeral home where my dad and beloved aunts and uncles had been laid out; the funeral was at the church where Aunt Rita attended Mass for at least 80 years.  The post-burial luncheon was our first huge family gathering in quite a while.

Such gatherings were frequent when I was growing up, and Aunt Rita’s house was where many of them took place.  She lived in the house where her parents, my grandparents, had lived for decades.  She and Uncle Frank inherited the house, took care of my grandparents as they aged, and raised their own four children there.   Our big Italian and Polish family gathered at that homestead on many a Sunday.  My uncles drank Seagrams VO and argued about Roosevelt around the big dining room table, while we played with cousins Frank, Nancy, Rick and Lorraine around the house.  We watched my grandfather pick tomatoes in the garden out back.  We played hide-and-seek in the unfinished basement — where we could see my grandmother’s old ringer washer; the stove where she made pizzelli and a stone-lined storage closet for the vegetables and fruits that my grandparents canned.

In the kitchen, Aunt Rita was always cooking something wondrous.  From the time she was a little girl she cooked side by side with my grandmother, who taught her everything she knew.  After my grandmother died in 1963 Aunt Rita continued to make her home the nexus for family connections and a place where one could always find an encouraging word and something delightful to eat.  Since Uncle Frank was Polish, Aunt Rita perfected many Polish dishes as part of her cooking repertoire. We enjoyed her Italian Sunday gravy; her cherry pies on Washington’s birthday; her Polish babka on Easter; her kugelhopf cake at Christmas; her pierogi many times of the year.

In fact, Aunt Rita — an Italian — became the pierogi mogul at her church, where she led a monthly fundraiser selling the Polish, potato-filled version of ravioli.  Some estimated that she might have raised close to $1 million for the church over the decades.  In a bold stroke of leadership, she convinced the incredulous old Polish ladies in the church kitchen to give up peeling fresh potatoes and use potato flakes instead, enabling the pierogi initiative to save time, scale up and make more money.

We shared these memories at Aunt Rita’s funeral Mass and at the funeral luncheon, both warm and loving events that Aunt Rita would have loved.  No doubt she enjoyed looking down from Heaven at all the graying heads that once belonged to the small children whose laughter filled her home, and at the fresh and beautiful expression of the family genes in their own children, now in the prime of young adulthood.  She no doubt was smiling when she saw cousins exchanging emails, cell phone numbers and promises to keep in touch.  She was smiling when she saw the comfort and support that surrounded her two sisters — my aunts Theresa and Chickie — the last survivors of the eight children in their family.  The love and concern we showed one another, the joy we felt in being together, was her life’s work and her legacy.

Rest in peace, Aunt Rita, and thanks for teaching us what’s most important.