Fluffy duvets, covered with blindingly white sheets, folded up neatly next to the highly plumped white pillows on the simple wood-framed bed. That was standard fare at every hotel my wife and I stayed in last summer on our trip to Switzerland. It looked pure and perfect. And, indeed, we were impressed with the apparent flawlessness of Swiss inns, towns and countryside. But we also found that our expectations did not always match reality. Of course, this is true anywhere. It becomes more apparent when you travel.
Take the bedding, as an example. While the clean, soft comfort of those duvets in our bedrooms seemed lavish and inviting, I quickly grew to dislike them. It was summertime and temperatures were in the 80s. There was no air conditioning in any of the hotels, and fans were few and far between. Heavy covers, no matter how light in color, were just too hot for the season. And, there was no alternative – no top sheet or light blanket. Sure, Switzerland is a northern country, not used to the extreme heat of the summer of 2010, but even in the “normal” weather of years past, the down-filled duvet seemed extreme. Why didn’t they supply a lighter alternative?
Our expectations were also belied when it came to vegetables. When you imagine Switzerland, Swiss chard probably isn’t the first thing you think of. It certainly wasn’t what came to our minds. However, as we rode our bicycles along the Rhine River, past fields of sunflowers, next to Europe’s largest waterfall (Rheinfall), through quaint villages with wood timbered houses and colorful window boxes of begonias, we saw rows and rows of leafy greens. At first, we weren’t sure what they were. But then we realized. “Of course. We’re in Switzerland, it’s got to be Swiss chard,” I exclaimed, thinking that it was standard fare here.
When we met up with my Swiss cousins a few days later and told them we were impressed with the vast acreages of Swiss chard we had seen, they looked at us with a blank stare. “What’s that? We’ve never heard of it.” And, that’s not because their English wasn’t good. They speak as well, or better than I do, and had lived in the U.S. for many years. After describing the leaves, they realized what we were talking about. “Oh, you mean mangold. We hardly ever eat it.” It turns out that it’s used as the wrapping for capuns, dumplings that are eaten only in eastern Switzerland. They consist of a mixture of egg, flour and dried meat, wrapped in chard and boiled in milk and stock. Not only that, but Swiss chard is not native to Switzerland. It’s an import from the Mediterranean, and is probably more popular in the U.S. than in its namesake country.
And, then there were the huge arched entryways of the finely decorated homes in the Lower Engadine Valley. Made of dark wood and often elaborately carved, these heavy doors provided nice contrast to the delicate designs on the home’s stucco walls, and the fine lace curtains covering the windows. To us, the dramatic doorways conveyed a sense of elegance. Surely, we thought, they were built to serve as regal entrances to stylish homes occupied by Switzerland’s upper crust.
Our fantasies quickly vanished when my cousin told us the history of the area and the reasons for this pattern of home design. The doors were made extra wide so that the farmers who owned these houses could bring their sheep and cattle inside at night or in cold weather. Suddenly, the interiors lost their stylishness and sophistication… On the other hand, I bet I could have had a good night’s sleep in one, as it was unlikely that there would have been puffy white duvets alongside the hay bales.