The Box up the Stairs, Part Seven: Basel and the Swiss Countryside
Meantime I keep up my spirits as I may. I have incurred too many hardships and difficulties to be presumptuous or confident in success, and I have been too often and too wonderfully extricated from them to be despondent. — Sir Walter Scott, Guy Mannering
I was blessed with the boon of hospitality in the homes of friends of friends, or of people I met on trains, thirteen of the thirty nights of my 1981 solo adventure in Europe. In Basel, Switzerland, I stayed with the parents of one of my good friends in Bozeman. Reiner and Elizabeth took me to all sorts of wonderful places in diverse parts of their beautiful country. They shared with me their appreciation of Switzerland’s history and ordered beauty. They loved driving out into the countryside, and I loved their company, their country, and Reiner’s sanguinity as he navigated the hairpin turns in the alpine roads. We visited the wooded, hilly Jura region, on the French border, lavish in autumn color. We drove into the mountains to see chariot ruts in an old Roman road, and then we went for a picnic. Another day, we visited one of their relatives who lived on a beautiful Appenzell farm. I learned that the custom of farms in the Appenzell region, long favored by hikers, is to permit hikers to traverse the land, and sometimes even to grant access to hotel-quality toilet facilities in a barn. The farms of the Appenzell are extraordinary for their cleanliness. Paths are paved, and there is no mud, anywhere. Coming from Montana, I suddenly felt like I was visiting Earth on a tourist visa.
Sometimes my friends simply put me on the tram in Basel with some suggestions, which always made for a marvelously serendipitous day. My German, acquired in one semester, served me well. I was able to buy some slacks, have them altered, order lunch, and even receive what I ordered. Reiner and Elizabeth spoke perfect English, but when I was out on my own, my attempts at German must have been sufficiently charming, because they drew smiles and responses in English.
When I returned to Switzerland the following year, I stayed in a castle belonging to one of Reiner’s relatives. Little gauze ghosts were festively suspended throughout the castle’s enormous halls; however, the bats were real. The owner showed me his library, and one of his prized volumes: the first Bible printed in the Romansh language. Like most Swiss from non-Romansh cantons, this 90-something patriarch spoke German, French, Italian, and English, but not Romansh. He owned more 900-year-old war helmets and other effects, all of which were family heirlooms, than I saw in the museum in Basel.
With its variety and natural and cultured beauty, Switzerland is without question the most beautiful place I have ever been. The trouble is, the good things about the country are preserved by very tight regulation. I loved it there very much, but when I returned home, I recognized the symptoms of my libertarian soul having been chafed a bit. All I wanted once I was back in Bozeman was to eat a taco salad at 4B’s.