The Swiss are so incredibly polite.
This was my sixth trip to Switzerland, but I had to come to the French-speaking part of the country before anyone ever told me that my family name in Swiss German slang means "stoner" or "pothead."
I'd been traveling around all these years and my name might as well have been Michael Reefer instead of Kiefer, and yet no one had ever so much as cracked a smile until my new friend Pascale blurted it out in a wine bar in Vevey. We'd had a glass of the digestif abricotine,an apricot white lightning, and more than a bottle of Chasselas, a dry and buttery white wine grown here in the Vaud region. You see the vineyards all along the shores of Lac Leman -- Lake Geneva to you -- and it's so good that the Swiss drink it all so there isn’t enough left over to export.
It was a cloudy evening in Vevey, but that just enhanced the light off the lake along the promenade. You could see all the way past Montreux to the eastern end of the lake, and across to the south, less than 20 miles away, the glaciers atop the French alps shone like night lights. Though spring was late this year, the flowers were everywhere in beds along the lakefront. More than one Swiss I talked to grumbled about their tax dollars going to flowers, but I loved it, and I loved watching the lovers walk hand in hand, hugging and kissing without caring who was watching. They called out to perfect strangers. “BON-soir,” the women practically sang in soprano voices.
Charlie Chaplin lived and died here in Vevey. The 18th Century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau lived here as a young man, and folks still gossip about how he seduced a beautiful and rich married woman who lived in what is now the music academy on the grand square. Such things usually end badly, philosophically speaking, and poor Rousseau has been accused of contributing to upheavals like Romantic fiction and the French Revolution.
I started out in Geneva at the westernmost edge of the lake and took the train to Lausanne, less than an hour away, at about the lake's midpoint. There, I checked in to the venerable old Beau Rivage-Palace Hotel in a waterfront neighborhood called Ouchy. From the balcony of my room, I could look across at Evian, France, or more accurately at the Alpine mountain ridge that became the logo on the famous water bottles.
The metro is just a block away from the Beau Rivage, and with a card they give you at the hotel, you can ride for free. Most transportation in the region uses the honor system; they only occasionally check for your ticket or Swisspass or regional transport card, but if they catch you without one, you pay a fine of 80 Swiss francs, which is about $84.
The night clubs and fancy restaurants are four or five metro stops uphill in a neighborhood called Le Flon, and from there you can easily walk up toward the historic university and the cathedral, which I mention mostly because you want to take the stairs down from the cathedral and stop at the cafe called Le Barbare, where they prepare an incredible cup of hot chocolate. The Swiss didn't invent chocolate -- it came from the new world -- but they did figure out how to whip it into the smooth confection we know today. And a man named Nestle, who lived nearby in Vevey, figured out how to mix it with milk powder to make milk chocolate.
There are some things about a lake: the light, the smell, the sound of the water lapping against the rocks. In the summertime, there's swimming and water skiing as well, but it had been a long wet and cold spring, and I wasn't going in, though I saw some foolish college boys shrieking as they jumped off a dock in a residential area, and a couple of old men floating like walruses on what I had to imagine were lifelong daily regimes despite the snow-melt temperature.
But I went out on the water in one of the ancient steam-powered paddle wheelers that skirt the shore past the vineyards and take families and couples on afternoon cruises from town to town. I thought it might be a touristy thing to do, but soon realized that it was a local outing, lunch and a boat ride, and I rode it all the way to the castle of Chillon, a thousand-year old bastion on the lake that is so romantic that the poet Lord Byron sulked and brooded and composed one of his more famous works, The Prisoner of Chillon, about a monk named Francois Boniver, during his stay in Ouchy. He also committed vandalism by scratching his name into a column in the Chilllon castle dungeon where Bonivar had been imprisoned.
The next day I was in the village of Chexbres a few train stops west of Vevey in a vineyard area known as Lavaux, which since 2007 has enjoyed status as a UNESCO World Heritage site, a designation that affords protection of cultural resources.
"Il faut arriver a une heure buvable," said winemaker Eric Bovy, as he drew shot glasses of his 2012 Chasselas from an oaken barrel bearing a scene painted by his grandfather."You need to come at a drinkable hour," which means something like "It's five o'clock somewhere."
To be exact, it was 11 in the morning, and it was already Bovy's second wine-tasting appointment of the day. Nonetheless, he uncorked a bottle of his 2011 Chasselas and helped my companion and me finish it off. (Buvable, I also learned, could be said of a woman who becomes friendlier after a few drinks.)
Just then one of the paddle wheelers steamed into the dock below at Rivaz.
"When the whistle blows, you are allowed to have a glass of wine," Eric said.
Rationalizations, justifications; we were drinking anyway, and maybe his conscience was bothering him more than mine was. He threw a big hunk of salty cheese up on the slicer and laid a full plate in front of us.
"What kind of cheese is this?" I asked.
"I don't know. Something my wife bought."
The boat whistle blew. We raised another glass.
An hour later we were hiking through the vineyards with a nice wine buzz, my friend and I. There were no cars on the narrow roads, no people on the paths and walkways. The vineyards above were just trying to leaf out. The redbuds and fruit trees were in spring bloom. The grass was already a foot tall, and lilac-colored wisteria hung from the fieldstone walls of the houses. Below, the lake shimmered. We walked to the village of St Saphorin, then caught the train back to Vevey.
There was a fruit plate and a half bottle of wine waiting for me in my room at Les Trois Couronnes, which I partook of before going to the hotel spa to sweat out the day's excesses and exercises in the hammam steam room.
The manager at Les Trois Couronnes is a handsome young man named Jay Gauer, and one night over dinner, he explained the concept of wellness food.
"When you think of detox, you think of punishment," he said. "We think of pleasure."
Indeed, the hotel's food concept is based on wellness, a European word that means healthy more than it means fitness or diet. It's based on a Mediterranean diet high in grains and olive oil. After a year, it earned the chef a Michelin star, so, "Why change it?" Jay said.
Indeed, a bite of pan-seared tuna on a bed of riced squash. White and green asparagus on an asparagus puree with delicate sauces. Broiled sea bream with pistachios and hints of mint and lemon grass. A cheese plate. The usual Chasselas or pinot noir from the region.
Jay likes for the hotel visitors to return home with "stories": a romantic dinner for two at a solitary table above the lake in the vineyards; a watch-making class for two.
But let's talk more about food. The lake is there, so there is a lot of fish, specifically perch and a Lake Geneva whitefish called fera, which of course go nicely with all that white wine. Asparagus with every meal. Beef, though horsemeat is a local favorite, and rosti, which is a bed of fried, shredded potatoes with onions, which can be served as a side of potatoes or as the base for egg, ham or vegetable dishes.
Believe it or not, I had come to the region with the hope of staying outside as much as possible, but Mother Nature did not cooperate as much as I would have liked. The Swiss are always so prompt -- they make watches, remember -- and everything is so on time and organized. But even they can't control the weather.
I was supposed to go traipsing through Alpine meadows at 10,000 feet at a place called Rochers de Naye, the terminus of a cog railway that climbs straight up from Montreux. It was May after all. And indeed the meadows below were green and grassy under drizzly skies. The views were steep and spectacular--until we came out of the last tunnel near the top into a February snowstorm. So when things don't work out the way you planned, you can eat lunch. I opted for fondue, and my guide Angela ordered an asparagus salad with cherry tomatoes that looked someone had plopped a garden on her plate.
Angela is Italian, and she has a habit of quite innocently speaking in three languages at once. The first sentence might be French, the second Italian and the third English, and she would only linger in one language or the other if the subject matter demanded it. Every now and then she would burst into Spanish, just to see if I were paying attention.
Talk about global citizens: I met a woman in the Geneva airport who learned Danish as a child, but was raised in Colombia and lived in Lausanne. She spoke Spanish at home with her Swiss French husband and her three-year-old son, who was born in Singapore, though he spoke French at school. And she spoke English with her own parents whom she was going to visit in Miami, and she hoped her mother wouldn't speak Danish because four languages, as opposed to three, just might short-circuit the kids.
Back to the traipse: Angela and I rode the cog railway down below the snow line and into the greenery and got off to walk down staircases and pathways to the lake in Montreux.
Montreux is famous, among other things, for its annual music festival. Outside the casino is a statute of Freddie Mercury, the late lead singer of Queen, who lived and recorded in Montreux.
The weather did not cooperate the next day either. I took the train to the village of Aigle, beyond the lake, with the intention of continuing up to the glacier above the ski area, Les Diablerets. It, too, was socked in, so I hitched a ride to Les Bains de Lavey, a water park filled with hot spring water, where families go to pass the day on a weekend when the weather is ugly. The largest pools are outdoors, and the water is warm enough that you don't really care if it's drizzling or snowing on you. As a relief to most Americans, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, people wear bathing suits in the saunas and steam baths, an apparent Calvinist hangover in contrast to the rest of Switzerland where everyone tends to go nude. But it becomes a social event, with whole groups of friends gather to talk and lovers float by locked in embrace.
On Saturday night in Vevey, they had set up a giant party tent in the Grand Place, with beer taps and giant sausages. Inside, a band played guitars and other stringed instruments I didn't recognize. A piper played, and the percussion was provided by one band member who stomped his feet rhythmically on some sort of board. The words were in French, but the melody and the music were decidedly Celtic, and though most of the partiers were sitting at tables drinking beer or leaning on the bar, a few brave souls hopped and bopped in front of the stage.
I wandered back through the crowds on the waterfront to the bar at my hotel. The bartender warned me that the beer on tap (although very good) was more expensive than the pinot noir I was drinking. I sat trying to figure out what language the piano player was using as he sang a Billy Joel tune. After a few lines, I realized he was singing in English, and I asked the bartender if he could tell.
"I'm English, and I can't understand a word," he said in French. We laughed and switched to English ourselves.
Somehow, after a few more glasses of wine, the lyrics to the songs became more understandable. The piano player’s voice went gravelly, his eyes winced as he sang a version of Lionel Ritchie's "Easy Like Sunday Morning" that was so beautifully smooth and soulful that I asked in French if he had been a black man in an earlier life. He didn't understand, so I repeated it in English -- he was singing in English after all. Still no.
"I'm Italian," he said, and he smiled when I posed the question a third time in Italian. Then he asked if I would like for him to serenade me in Italian.
"Certo!" I answered.