Sunday, March 11, 2007

from Cervinia, Italy, one last time

In the morning, the sun is brilliant. The rich blue color of the sky alone is a thrill. Sure, I am biased, but the Italian Alps in my mind are the place to go to if you need a hit of sunlight. I know, it’s not rational on my part. The snow does not fall from blue skies, but when I am here, the sun never fails to make an appearance. It’s one of those charmed places for me. (I don’t really believe in charmed places, but if I keep up the pretence, maybe it will continue never to disappoint me.)

Still, my goal is to ski over to Switzerland today and I am told that this morning, Switzerland is closed.

How can a country be closed? It is what happens when the winds continue to speed across the mountaintops in some kind of a race that only nature can understand.

[One of the reasons to ski in Cervinia is that you can make your way to the top of the mountain range and ski down into Swiss Zermatt. Not that Zermatt deserves a day of your time – being far more crowded than Cervinia ever could be, but it’s a fun thing to do and the trails there are different – through woods and past huts with steaming hot chocolate inside. Swiss chocolate. Exactly.]

So, it's closed. Never mind Switzerland then. Tomorrow I have to travel back via Geneva (work reasons). That’s plenty Swiss, if in a French sort of way. Today, my heart stays in Italy.

But fate has a different agenda for me.

Signora, they have opened Switzerland. The desk clerk says this tentatively. And by now, I'm reluctant as well. My memories of Zermatt are less sumptuous. The trail over the mountain summit is rarely without weather issues. Skiing the top of a range is a windy experience even in calm days. Today, the winds are down to only 60 kilometers an hour. They may grow worse and I will have to ski back, no matter what the weather (there is no road connection between Cervinia and Zermatt).

Still, a hot chocolate in the woods…

I’m off. One gondola, then another, then a third and I am on the top.

It’s freaky windy up here! Do people get blown away ever? And the sun, what’s happening to it? Clouds, just as I approach the Swiss side. Figures.

Okay, I can’t dally. A photo of the Italian side,

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…a photo of the Swiss side,

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…a tightening of the scarf around my face, a tightening of everyone’s scarves…

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…and I am off.

Every exposed part of my face is suffering. The wind is blowing pellets of ice straight at me. My face tells me that one layer of cream was not enough. I am getting wind burn and ice burn. The only thing missing is a sunburn.

I navigate the trail slowly. I don’t want to make a mistake. I don’t want to wait with a broken limb for the rescue team. I will die a slow death waiting for the Swiss ski patrol to bundle me up in a blanket and scoot me over to some clinic or other. No thanks.

At my elbow, the Matterhorn peak stands tall, sharp. You wimp, it seems to say. Famous climbers have climbed my steep sides and you groan at ice pellets.

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I am close to the first base (one third down!). I am thinking wow, not even a fall! I am so on top of this. In good form! I have been whipped and buffeted and I am still in one piece.

In this very moment of self-congratulatory reflection, I am suddenly hit hard, right in the rib cage. An out of control skier flies right into me. I stagger, topple, can’t get up. He slides down further, but seems unhurt. I am dazed. A woman skis over and tries to figure out if I am alright. I try to figure this out as well. I ache, I throb, but I can move. The skiing maniac comes over for a minute but he appears to know no language that I am familiar with. And so he skis away.

The woman asks if I want the ski patrol. No, no! I do not want to be carted away on one of those sleds they use for people who have bones crushed in two and three pieces. I can move, I am whole.

Yes, I can move, but it is a slow move. My trip down to Zermatt is painful. My ribs ache. My energy is zapped.

The Matterhorn hides behind a cloud and refuses to show its peak. Okay, I like you just fine, Matterhorn on the Swiss side, but please, show me something of the good in this run because right now I just wish I were in Italy.

I pass the restaurant in the woods where I was to have my hot chocolate. Forget it. I don’t want your chocolate, I want to finish this run down so that I can take the lifts up to the summit again where I can face Cervinia.

Alright, I am being unfair. I am in Switzerland now. A nice Swiss skier showed concern and helped me to my feet. Switzerland. My children’s pediatrician comes from Switzerland.

I slow down and take out my camera. I have crossed one mountain range and the world has changed. I may as well take note of it.

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Swiss place of rest and refreshment

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Swiss men, waiting for refreshment

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other Swiss men, feeling refreshed

Just before entering Zermatt, I give in to the unbelievably strong urge to sit down and massage my ribs. I take off my skis and find a table at a restaurant just by the trail. Spinach soup. Okay and hot chocolate. I’ll have a mug. Swiss hot chocolate.

But the waitress bring the hot chocolate before the soup and it comes in the form of a little packet which I am to pour into the hot milk she places before me. I have seen these packets in the grocery aisles of the stores back home.

I forgive her. The soup is good and I needed to rest.

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I am nearly in Zermatt. The snow is wet here and there are bare spots off the trail.

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I don’t want to ski into the town center. Sure, there are good people here doing good things,

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(in all honesty, I do not think they are Swiss)

...but I want to return south. I ski down toward the large, ever so technically proper gondola and head back up to the summit.

Finally, sore but standing, I face the Italian valley, with a smile.

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It’s a long run down and my ribs still feel too big for my rib cage, but the sky is blue, the view is splendid, love is in the air and on the ground...

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...and I know that toward the bottom, I can stretch out with the rest of ‘em, turn my face to the sun and exhale.

And at the end of the long afternoon, I'll reach for my just desserts,

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... to be followed by a long, long spell at the sauna.

UPDATE: Check the comments for the latest on helmets and princes.