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August 7, 2020 | Rome, Italy

The mountain life

By | 2018-03-21T18:47:46+01:00 February 21st, 2012|Features Archive|
Cross into Switzerland and the water gets expensive.
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hough we looked like just another pair of tourists, the chef seemed impossibly charmed. To be fair, the skewed-hat chef had reached a stage in his day when anything could charm him. Around us, a group of police officers relaxed while locals drank wine at the bar. It seemed clear the chef had dipped into the lodge’s alcoholic offerings to stave off cold and boredom.

Checking on our pasta and goulash, he seemed taken aback by our accents. “Ma da dove siete?” he asked, as if non-Italians didn’t come to Cervinia, a ski resort in the Italian Alps. “Dagli Stati Uniti,” said my boyfriend. I jumped in: “Ma abitiamo qui per l’inverno.” We’re living here for the winter.

The chef’s eyes widened to the size of the plates he’d served us. “Nooooo,” he said, as if only giving the vowel the length of a musical bar could truly communicate his surprise. “But it’s not possible!”

He called over to the bar. “Drinks for them! Drinks for them!”

Thirty seconds later, the bartender appeared with a tall bottle of one of the area’s sweet, potent digestivi.

The chef at the lodge was hardly the only person surprised that two Americans had decided to spend two months in the Italian Alps. Cervinia has three separate and distinct winter communities. The tourists are largely British, Italian and Swiss, and tend to blow through for a week at most. The seasonal expat workers are mostly British or Eastern European. The resort desperately needs their youthful energy and fluent English to handle the sudden thrum of profits from the first group.

Then come the locals, those who grew up here or might as well have — these are people who can handle the -35C bite. To them, having to drive 20 minutes to get fresh meat because there’s no butcher in the village is just a little quirk of Alpine life.

Having moved to the Alps for the season, but not to work in a bar; and having come from Rome, not from England or Eastern Europe, but with American passports, the two of us seemed to confound all categories. The locals didn’t know how to respond. Except with surprise and charm that we’d picked their home as a roost.

The warm reception was nice change from Rome, where locals generally take the huge expat community for granted. Every time we return to the tiny mountain market, the shop girl makes another item vanish from our bill. Every time I work on my computer at the local café, the owner offers a plate of goodies on the house. When I went to the ski shop to buy new mittens, the owner, who is also a ski instructor, invited us out on the slopes next day. (The girl from the market showed up, showing the smallness of the community). And when my new mittens tore a week later, he didn’t bat an eyelash before replacing them with a new pair.

The same kind of thing can happen in Rome. But when you’re just one person speaking American-accented Italian among thousands, you’re not only less memorable, but vaguely annoying. It takes dozens of trips to your local store to make the same impression of a single one in a tiny Italian town.

I’d just started settling into my status as an honorary, temporary local when I skied into Switzerland for the day.

Since only one Swiss flag marks the border, the sudden changes astounded. Italian lapsed suddenly into French or German. No one spoke the language I’d been steadily and stubbornly sneaking up on fully understanding. Although lodges accepted the euro, change came in Swiss francs. The gondolas were faster and newer, and the trails more crowded than the near-desolate pistes we’d become used to in Cervinia.

We decided to grab lunch. Mountain resort dining expensive anywhere, but in Cervinia, a lodge “meal” of pasta, water, and coffee ran about €12. We figured Switzerland couldn’t be so different.

We sat down in one of the adorable, wood-beamed houses that line the trails into town and ordered a big bottle of water, just as we would in Italy. When we finally got around to checking the menu, we saw the prices at 25 or 30.

One tiny €11 ham sandwich later, we asked for the bill — and got another surprise: that bottle of water, €2 or €3 euro on the Italian side, cost €9 here.

We clumsily raked through Swiss francs to find the right amount, and left. And just like that, we were tourists again.

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Amanda Ruggeri's column "La Straniera" ran from 2010 through mid-2014.

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