Notes From Abroad
As the weekend approached recently, Emily Forster ’12, who is spending her Junior Year Abroad in Geneva, and her friends knew just what to do: a train trip to the countryside to sample the local spirits. Despite their early ambivalence, they eventually had an experience to remember.
The train careens precariously along a Swiss mountainside, taking corners like a pro, but tilting with the threat of toppling over the edge at any moment. I adjust my sunglasses to appreciate the spectacular landscape—miles of hillside vineyards stretching to the shores of sparkling Lac Leman far below. Above, the jagged Swiss Alps, their snow-capped peaks reaching into the clear sky.
I’ve lived in Switzerland for only a few months, but this incredible scenery will never cease to take my breath away.
I feel a hand on my shoulder and look up to see my friend, Ali, and her flat-mate, Lola, getting ready to disembark. As the train slows I notice another friend, Sarah, waiting for us.
It’s Friday, and we are all on a mission. The previous week, Ali stumbled upon a Web site for a vineyard in this Swiss region of Vevey-Montreaux that offers free wine tasting—every Friday afternoon.
When we find our destination, my first instinct is to walk straight back to the train station. This is not a vineyard. This is no more than a shop. A cramped little shop with a disturbing lack of customers. Only an elderly and despondent barman stands at the back, cleaning a glass behind a humble wooden bar.
Reluctantly, we venture inside.
The barman perks up as we enter, and shuffles to the front, motioning for us to take a seat. We arrange ourselves around a small wooden table, looking anxiously around, woefully unaware of wine-tasting etiquette. Should we ask for a bottle? Where are the prices?
The barman cracks a smile then disappears briefly. He reappears with a newly opened bottle of red wine. Panic strikes. How much does that wine cost? If he opens a new bottle, do we have to pay for it? He approaches our table speaking the magic words, “c’est gratuit” (“It’s free”). We relax as he splashes a taste into Lola’s glass. A few smiles—“merci, merci”—and we are on our way to becoming regular customers of this fine establishment.
For half an hour we sit around our table commenting on what our college-seasoned palates judge to be quality local wine. Then another gentleman appears from behind the bar motioning for us to follow him. We are led to a large red barn behind the shop. At the entrance, up on a platform, sits a group of boys and men ranging from about age 12 to 80. One stands and gestures for us to join them.
They help us on to the platform as a large blue tractor rumbles out from behind the barn, towing a trailer carrying four vats filled with the most beautiful grapes I have ever seen.
As we gape in paralyzing admiration at the deep purple fruit, the lanky 12-year-old climbs onto the platform and hooks one of the vats to a crane. The crane lifts the container into the air, tipping it so that the thousands of perfect, vine-ripened grapes tumble into the roaring maw of a grinding machine.
We are mesmerized, but more than that, we want to taste those grapes. Our host, detecting the obvious longing on our faces, reaches into the machine and hands us a perfectly formed bunch, their elliptical shapes glistening in the setting sun, each so deeply purple they’re nearly black. With reverence, we pluck and taste the fruit. The flavor is pure, unadulterated grape, with a warm, earthy taste. They taste like the air around us. They taste like Switzerland.
As the sun disappears behind the towering Alps, we hurry inside to buy some wine from our barman.
Bottles in hand, we wave goodbye to our exceptional hosts and head back to the station, gratified with the knowledge that, particularly in Switzerland, things are often not what they at first seem.