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What the heck is a Franc?


In a way, Switzerland is intimidating: No official language, just an assortment of dialects only a local could understand. An economy where your euro – assuming you’re entering the country from a bordering EU nation – has to be exchanged for the franc. What the heck is a franc? you might wonder. Even the clean, pristine, beautiful mountainsides are somehow intimidating. Am I good enough for those mountains? you ask yourself.

I was asking myself these sorts of questions, anyway, as my partner Bella and I packed up our sleeping bags and tent, and set off on an overnight backpacking trip in the Bernese Alps. We boarded a small, narrow gauge train in the village of Wilderswil that climbed and creaked up the side of a steep mountain for 1400 meters and dropped us off at a little station on the Schynige Platte. It was already pretty late in the day and we didn‘t have too much energy, but we put our packs on and started down a trail that skirted a ridge towering high above the valley floor.

All around us were startling, stunning, snow capped peaks. As awe-inspiring as it all was, though, we realized that some of the impact was probably lost on us since we’d been traveling in Europe for nearly two months and had already been so lucky to experience so many other natural wonders — the jagged peaks of Corsica, the sea cliffs at Slieve League in Ireland. We were at that point you sometimes reach in a long trip where it’s almost possible to take such beauty for granted.

Had we flown from the States directly to Switzerland, however, we probably would’ve both had a heart attack from the sheer grandeur of it all. What really shocked me was the fact that Switzerland so closely resembled the Switzerland of the guide books and the countless movies filmed here. The Alps, I found, actually look like the Alps. In fact, to my great surprise, they are the Alps. And no matter how many times James Bond skis down one of these mountains with an army of anonymous men in snowsuits in pursuit or Clint Eastwood and George Kennedy pretend to be dangling from the end of a rope in the forgotten, non-classic, pseudo-thriller The Eiger Sanction – probably playing on TV as you read this – the Alps will always be the Alps.

We only hiked for a few hours that day and then scrambled down into a small meadow of alpine flowers to set up camp. Across from us were the distinctive peaks of the Eiger, the Monch and Jungfrau–or the Ogre, the Monk and the Virgin–and we laid in the grass, trying to use the shape and contours of each peak to determine which was which. We confused the Virgin with the Ogre, which you can take however you like. Soon the sun began to set, its light and warmth retreating from our small meadow, and we decided it was about time to crawl into the tent. Still, it wasn’t yet as cold as we had feared on the train trip up, during which I had pictured the ground covered in a thick layer of ice and an avalanche burying us in the middle of the night–revenge, perhaps, for even daring to enter this country. We felt optimistic that the night would go well–the Alps were more serene than I had anticipated and far more welcoming, too. Our optimism proved naive, however, as the temperature quickly dropped and we couldn’t stop ourselves from shivering no matter how deeply we tried to burrow into our sleeping bags. Actual sleep seemed out of the question, as was any attempt to get comfortable on the hard ground and in our narrow confines. Survival was the only goal, which may or may not have been one of The Eiger Sanction‘s taglines.

Finally Bella drifted off into a fitful slumber and at about six in the morning I crawled back out of the tent, put on as many layers of clothing as I could, climbed up to the trail and jogged back and forth to keep my blood flowing.

The sun was beginning to rise behind a nearby ridge, illuminating the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau across from me and filling the valley behind me with a pink glow, but the meadow we were camped in was still dark. The ground was encased in a frost so thick it actually resembled the bed of ice I had been worried yesterday we would find. Eventually the sun began to peek out from behind the ridge and a ray of sun shone down on the meadow floor. I ran into the light and immediately felt warmer. I understood now how so many cultures throughout history could have worshipped nature and the sun in particular. There was probably a moment or two in the tent that night where I was actually afraid I would never see the sun’s light again or feel its warmth, and I could’ve easily imagined praying for its return. Now I could hear a faint cracking sound which, when I bent down, I discovered was the frost breaking off of the wildflowers and releasing them. The sun, it seemed, was bringing them back to life. It provides for us all, I thought, as long as you’re faithful. If Bella hadn’t gotten out of the tent about then, I probably would’ve started some pagan ritual in the sun’s honor. By the time we got everything packed up we were, to our incredulity, hot. On the hike back we were sweating.

Yet I was happy. I’d had a truly deep and personal experience with the Alps, the sort I’d been worried I might not get amid all this overwhelming grandeur. Not only that, but I learned never to take the sun for granted. Even as I write this I can see out the window that dusk is gathering, and I am fearful. O great Sun God, please don’t forsake me. Why don’t you answer my prayers?

Maybe He turned on the tube and got caught up in a rerun of The Eiger Sanction.

More by this author on his blog.

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