Mountains are as integral to Switzerland as beaches are to Tahiti. But that doesn't mean every Swiss person likes the rising surroundings.
LAUSANNE — Walking for hours under a late autumn sun. Climbing steep slopes with a backpack. Camping on a mountaintop with the fresh wind in your face. Skiing the open slopes with fresh powder. Sounds like a dream, right?
Not if you're someone who doesn't like mountains. Believe it not, they exist — even in Switzerland! And for them, all that traipsing around at elevation sounds more like a nightmare. So how do they survive? How, in this day and age, with forest hikes and other bucolic excursions regaining popularity, do they manage to say no?
"I hate the mountains. They hide the countryside," French journalist and comedian Alphonse Allais once said. It's a sentiment shared by Joseph, 51, who despises verdant hills, with their cows and dark brown fields, despite being born on a hillside in Vallais, the southern Swiss canton where the Matterhorn is located. "It was a casting mistake," he tells me over the phone.
Mountains, Joseph explains, annoy and depress him. First, there's the physical effort involved. "When sweat collects on your back, and your toes suffocate in your hiking shoes, that repulses me," he says. Then there are the abrupt changes in temperature that make you take off, put back on, and then remove again the fleece pullover you brought along "just in case."
Even worse than the physical feeling is all the symbolism and mythology surrounding mountains. "I saw a Catholic postcard in the 1970s," Joseph recalls. "The idea was to elevate yourself physically in order to see things from above. Self-isolate to find answers." He dismisses it all as "cheap spirituality" by way of "silent retreats."
The mystique of elevation and of spirituality in nature? It's all "a big scam," in Joseph's opinion. "Where does this imperative come from, which says that being in the mountains is relaxing? I relax more at an intersection in New York."
When someone talks to this Vallais native about pure air and summits, all he can think about is sanatoriums and suspended time. It's an image leftover from his childhood that he has never been able to change. For a while, Joseph's hatred of mountains was so visceral that he thought he suffered from acrophobia.
As for summits, Joseph never gets near them. "Except maybe if I was dealing with some powerful emotional blackmail, or if there was a beautiful terrace with a cable car," he says. What do people tend to make of his ideas? "A Swiss person who doesn't like mountains is an eccentricity, something exotic, so I play along!" Joseph adds one last little tidbit before our conversation ends: He can tolerate mountains on paper, as in reading descriptions by the likes of Charles Ferdinand Ramuz (1878-1947) and S. Corinna Bille (1912-1979), both of Lausanne.
A clear message to the mountains? — Photo: Nikolai Winter
Admiring the landscape without necessarily having to conquer it by the sweat of your brow is also how Adrien prefers his mountains. Adrien, 42, is repelled by physical effort. "After a week of work, traveling for kilometers carrying kids' snacks in your backpack isn't really my thing," the family man explains. "I prefer lounging around by a lake or, better yet, the sea."
There it is, the age old question. The mountains or the sea? This dilemma divides families and couples into two distinct clans. Catherine, 28, has made her choice. The biology student hates "strolling in the forest," hates all that "fresh air."
"I'm too plugged in, too much of a city-slicker maybe," she says. "I don't see the appeal of throwing myself up and down trails marked with yellow diamonds, surrounded by empty fields, when I could walk through a city and meet all the people who live there."
She does make some exceptions, though, for Christmas or weekend getaways with friends. Her preferred moments on such excursions? "Rest-stops along the highway; games in the evening as snow falls; a hot bath when I get home." That, and the fondue of course, though one can just as easily make fondue at home in the city.