FD Luxe’s Christina Geyer, on truffle-hunting, all-day schussing and the Gruyère cheese she’ll never forget
by CHRISTINA GEYER
photographs by GRAY MALIN
My mother has three brothers. Their mother is German and their father was Italian. They were raised in a European way that was rooted in hard work, passion and unwavering tradition. Despite their occasional hot tempers and tough-as-nails pride, each of those siblings is a romantic. My mother, Mary, and her brothers John, Peter and Fred are moved emotionally by nostalgia and the beauty of nature, and they each maintain a wondrous, childlike enthusiasm. And they are epicurean to the core: The family dinners of my youth were a testament to that. Homemade food and plenty of alcohol fueled the conversational cacophony of muddled English and German words.
Embedded in those wistful dinner-table stories of bygone times and travels was one recurring topic: Switzerland. I have heard many versions of these Switzerland stories, and my mother and her brothers have personal recollections: skiing all day in the Alps; truffle-hunting with my Great Uncle Peter leading the way, smoking a cigar at all times; and decadent meals at home made by Peter’s wife, Simone. These were the fairytales of my childhood — but fantasy they were not. My mother and her brothers all spent time in Switzerland throughout various periods of their adolescence and adulthood. As teenagers, my mother and her younger brother, John, visited Peter, Simone and their children in Lausanne. A tranquil city in the French- speaking part of the country, on the coast of Lake Geneva, Lausanne is a short boat ride across the lake from Évian, France, the city renowned for its mineral water. From Peter’s terrace, you can just see the iridescent, snow-capped Mont Blanc peeking out from a mountainous crevice in the distance. My mother remembers fondly the daily lunches she had there: always at home, with beautiful linens and a well-set table. Fine food and drink were often the lead characters in the Switzerland tales. “One of the best stories,” recalls John, “was when your cousin yelled at a waiter because he brought us the wrong-year wine, after we already had a few bottles. How he could taste the difference is beyond me.”
Other times, as adults, my mother and her brothers went to Switzerland alone. At age 23, my mother returned for a third time to visit her friend Fredi, an eccentric pastry chef who lived year-round in Bern and spoke a Swiss-German dialect. “He was a typical Swiss person,” my mother says. “Peaceful, charming, classic, self-indulgent, well-mannered, well-fed but not overweight, controlled.” Most memorable for her was a simple meal of fondue, that dreamy dish where bread is dipped into a pot of hot, melted cheese. On my own visit to Switzerland four years ago, Great Uncle Peter drove my grandmother and me several hours from Lausanne to a tiny, chalet-style restaurant in the region of Gruyères, made famous by its namesake cheese, that served fondue made from the wonderful stuff. I doubt I will ever experience a meal or a setting that was indulgent and comforting, yet so utterly simple.
My mother’s oldest brother, also named Peter, went to Switzerland in his early 20s. It was during this particular trip that he learned to ski. “That meant getting up early in the morning before sunrise,” he recalls, “to take the train along Lake Geneva to the far end.” He methodically explains the rest of the journey: a bus ride to the cog train — a type of railway common in Switzerland that is built to scale much steeper inclines than a typical train — which takes you up the mountain and to the ski lift. Finally, the climax: “You ski all day,” he says. “Then you do the very same thing the next day. It was like I had died and gone to heaven.” Peter’s heaven is a place called Col des Mosses, a mountain pass in the Swiss Alps in the western part of the country. The thrilling Alpine Pass hiking trail runs through it. John, too, has memories of the Alps, from cross- country skiing “all over the place” to romantic drives through the mountains with his wife.
A neutral territory — certainly not just politically, but metaphorically — Switzerland served as the bucolic setting for my mother’s and uncles’ coming-of-age stories. Their collective memories, in all their glorious differences and similarities, shed light on the values of my family: respect and appreciation for nature; fine, though not pretentious, dining at home; adventure within clearly defined parameters; and knowing yourself through knowing and understanding your roots. What came to them in this serene, fair-minded country is, by result, rooted deeply in me. Though not Swiss by blood, I suppose we are all a little bit Swiss in essence.