Kris à Genève

A Canadian living in Switzerland

The retirees

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Near the beginning of my dissertation-writing, in early June, my stepdad Chris and his partner Ilka visited us in Geneva for two weeks. Part of the experience for me was an advance feeling of guilt about the days during their visit on which I had to begin writing and leave them to explore on their own. On those days themselves, though, my feeling of guilt quickly turned to envy, as I discussed with them possible destinations the night before, waved goodbye to them in the morning and then listened to their stories in the evening. Chris and Ilka packed those days on their own with excursions, walking and destinations with an ease that is characteristic of Chris’s retired life, and of my envy thereof.

Chris retired a number of years ago and took to it like a fish to water. He quickly became the kind of retiree that makes it very difficult for a 30-something like me to accept that I am not yet halfway through my working life and still have 25 years or so before I can have his life.

When I lived in Victoria, we would meet for dinner and I could relate stories of Eileen, work, paddling and… not much else. By contrast, Chris would have stories of late mornings reading at a café, excursions with his hiking club, scheduled sessions of ballroom dancing and paddling, volunteer and part-time work that kept him both busy and fulfilled, using his senior’s card for a free day trip on the ferry to Vancouver to have lunch with Suzanne and, worst of all, a variety of travel plans throughout the year. These included not only standard destination trips, but also funky ones such as several stints as a dance host on a cruise ship and hiking the pilgrim’s trail through the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

I admit that this year I have worn out my frequent flyer’s card, but soon this student interlude will end and I will return to being that working stiff in Victoria, that student tied to his desk in Geneva, listening with envy to Chris’s stories about the far-off white shores of retirement.

Apart from the brief existential crisis that Chris’s retirement skills caused me, the highlight of his visit for me was the five days the four of us spent in the Valaisian Alps. We stayed four nights in Saas-Fee and made a day trip to Zermatt. Chris and Ilka were unlucky with weather during their trip – their two weeks are the only extended period of cloud and showers I can remember in Switzerland going back to last August – but the weather never cancelled any activities, so it was fine. And it ended up being a worthwhile trade, as after three cloudy days in Saas-Fee, we decided to go to Zermatt in spite of a continued poor forecast, only to be surprised by a full day of sun, blue sky and heat.

Saas-Fee is a small, car-free town tucked about as high into the Alps as any town in Switzerland. It sits in a steep bowl with mountains on three sides. Here is a photo of the town from our hotel room balcony:

The mountains above Saas-Fee culminate in the 4,545-metre Dom, the third-highest mountain in the Alps and the second-highest in Switzerland. Here is the Dom at sunrise, with the little Mischabelhütte climber’s hut illuminated on the right flank:

And here is a misty sunset behind the 4,491m Täschhorn, the Dom’s southern neighbour:

We spent all but one of our days hiking in the mountains and valleys around Saas-Fee. Here is the intrepid group smiling in the drizzle, with an impressive cirque glacier in the background. Also impressive is Eileen’s red R2D2 toque.

It was still late spring in the high Alps, so the animals were hungry and the summer tourists had not arrived to scare them into hiding, so we saw several ibex and marmots during our walks in Saas-Fee. Here is an overfed marmot who we nicknamed The Chubby Funster and an ibex who looks too solemn and noble for a cheeky nickname.

Here is a great portrait of Eileen at a lookout far above the river that flows through Saas-Fee village:

On another day we hiked down the valley from Saas-Fee to Saas-Almagell. On the return trip, we walked along the ingenious aqueducts that are perched on the steep slopes of the valley and carry meltwater from the mountain snowfields to the pastures and fields further down the valley. I found it difficult to make a photo that captured how they clung to the hillside and integrated with the forest and trail, so I employed my fall-back technique for livening up a photo: just add some Eileen.

In the 200m or so below the altitude of Sass-Fee village, clusters of small, wild rhododendron bushes were in vivid bloom.

The summer season had not really begun in Saas-Fee, and we were there over a long weekend, so many of the businesses were closed. We saw the following gem of a poster in the window of one of the closed photography shops. The caption reads “knowledge is power,” and the added bonus of the image is the little man’s jean suit.

Altogether we had some satisfying walks in Saas-Fee, brightened by the occasional flash of blue sky. That combination is well summarised by this sunspotty photo of Eileen, her hiking boots and a bench.

As I mentioned, the sun shone unexpectedly on our day trip to Zermatt. Cars are not even allowed to approach the town, so you must park in the nearby town of Täsch and ride a train up the remainder of the valley. I mention this only because we could feel the significant change in tourist crowds from Saas-Fee long before we even arrived in Zermatt: at the massive parking installations in Täsch, the city-sized train station and the crowded train cars. Arriving in Zermatt, you would never know that early June is a shoulder season in the Alps: shops were open, tourists were milling and the town was buzzing. Such is the draw of Zermatt, or more particularly, the Matterhorn.

Indeed, our main activity of the day was to ride the train up to the panoramic Gornergrat station at 3,089m, and it was difficult to pull my eyes away from the Matterhorn during the entire 30-minute ascent. The iconic shape of the mountain, its isolation from the other big mountains in the area and its position – at the head of the valley, always visible – remove any doubt as to why Zermatt is Switzerland’s most visited town. Here is a photo of the Matterhorn from the train:

The views of the Matterhorn were actually the best during the early part of the train ride. The train eventually climbs up a ridge that turns away from the Matterhorn. Where it terminates at Gornergrat station offers sheer views down to the Gornergletscher, and to the cluster of mountains surrounding 4,634m Monte Rosa, Switzerland’s highest mountain. The Matterhorn is but 4,478m small and sits in the middle distance. Here is a panorama photo that misses most of the glacier below, but shows the Matterhorn in the distance to the right, through to Monte Rosa on the far left. More than anything, the photo shows how cameras struggle to capture the scale of the mountain scenery visible from Gornergrat (click on the photo for a bigger copy).

And – damn that Matterhorn – it just kept jumping into our photos. Here are portraits of Chris and Ilka and Chris and I in front of the famous background:

Even when I turned my back on the Matterhorn and tried to shoot a photo of something, anything else, my favourite photo still somehow included the snowy tusk:

On our descent, Eileen and I walked down an upper portion of the trail before catching the train for the remainder of the descent; and Chris and Ilka walked down a lower portion of the trail. On our walk we came across a meadow that looked like a marmot highway, with dozens of the furrballs – Switzerland’s national animal – each seemingly on their way to somewhere important. As we told our friend Belinda, who loves marmots but has never seen one in the wild (and certainly not dozens in a single sighting) – they were just too numerous to photograph. Instead I shot these hippie sheep on the edge of the meadow with, you guessed it, the Matterhorn as background.

What a great visit with Chris and Ilka! On one hand, it was the latest meaningful time shared by stepfather and son. But it also had an element of novelty, as it was the first extended visit Chris had had with Eileen, and Eileen’s and my first time of any consequence with Ilka, who we met for the first time at our wedding last summer. I hope Chris and Ilka’s retirement train will roll through Switzerland again soon.

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Written by Kris Terauds

September 15, 2011 at 09:36

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