As my friends waved goodbye and left me behind for the third time this trip, a wave of disappointment crashed over me. My altitude sickness and inability to climb beyond base camp ensured yet another lonely and boring day. Admittedly, there were worse places to be grounded than in the heart of the majestic snow-capped peaks of the Swiss Alps. Knowing my new friends were bonding over hiking adventures, I felt particularly alone even amidst the picture perfect blue skies and flower dotted mountainside. I shuffled around the campsite looking for something to do when my counselor, Will, offered, “How about a walk to town? We need food for dinner.” Thankful for some companionship, I set off with Will for the trek to the charming postcard worthy town that equipped hikers with provisions and was the sole meeting place for the farmers whose mellow cows punctuated the hillsides.
With limited appetite, the standard American cookout fare we had been preparing had been welcome comfort. Still, my stomach was uneasy. This adventure was already lots of firsts for me: first time away from family, first time in hiking boots, first night in a tent. I love travel, but trying new foods was my Achilles. Five days into our trip, Will decided to culturally acclimatize us by putting a Swiss spin on the familiar. My ultimate comfort food was about to be turned on its head.
Our first stop was the cheese shop. Opening the door we were overcome with a putrid smell of stinky cheese. I took a deep breath to control my stomach. I could not believe my eyes or my nose; the splendid, beamed store was stocked floor to ceiling with unimaginable varieties of cheese. Knowing this selection demanded some guidance, we appealed to the stout, aproned, elderly lady behind the counter. In broken English she told us that she had worked in this store since childhood, as had her mother before her. Perhaps she sensed my churning stomach, but more likely, she was a grandmother to all. A chunk of warm, crusty bread slathered in cheesy-goodness found its way into my shaky hands. Despite my usual unwavering objection to eating anything I couldn’t smell without making a face, she wasn’t one I could refuse. I ate. Laughing and gesticulating as she worked her way through the shop telling us stories, the tastings continued. She kept cutting, and as I listened keenly to her narrative, I kept eating. Hard cheeses, soft and creamy, blue and moldy, I couldn’t stop eating. The anxieties of the past week and of trying new foods soon melted away in the warmth of my new friend. Ultimately we settled on a small block of Gruyere and a Vacherin sold in a handsome, crested spruce box. Our stomachs and hearts were already full from the visit. We hugged before she loaded our arms with fresh loaves straight from the oven and white packages neatly tied with red ribbons, sending us on our way before welcoming the next hungry hikers in search of her sustenance.
After a break for a coffee and a stop at the supermarket for noodles and chocolate, we walked down the dirt road just as my weary friends were dragging themselves back to the campsite. Will went to debrief with his co-counselor. I walked beside my friend as she recounted their magnificent hike and adventures above the clouds. I smiled as she talked, but somehow, I wasn’t jealous. She apologetically asked me about my day stuck at base, to which I replied, “It was nice. We’re having Mac & Cheese.”
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