Fire on Snow

This week I’m on holiday with my family in Zermatt, a picturesque skiing village at the foot of the Matterhorn. Until the end of the second World War, Zermatt was a small farming village specialising in goats, cows and sheep, although there had been a skiing resort since 1910, it really took off in the late 40’s changing the landscape and social infrastructure of the town permanently. It now has a residence population of about 4000 – half of which are the original Swiss families who have been here for generations the other 2000 hospitality workers (mainly from Portugal) servicing the many hotels that function all year, with the remnants of boutique farming (goats cheese etc). It’s a polyglot of tourist; at breakfast it’s mainly German, French and some Poles – apparently the Russians arrive next week big time – for the Russian Xmas. The movies available on the hotel TV are a wonderful illustration of this. We sat through one of the worst films I’ve had the dubious pleasure of viewing – a Russian film about ‘a chalk of Fate’ that once belonged to the legendary Tamerlane. Straggling about four genres (Sci-Fi, detective, historical fiction and vampire) it was an low budget incomprehensible mesh-mash that arbitrarily threw in odd things like tango dancing, lingering close-ups of beer (product placement?) stilettos heels ascending stairs and the two middle-age protagonists crossing into other dimensions via what looked like large stretched clear sheets of plastic! It was just missing the obligatory soft porn encounter. The fact it was in English did not help.


There is an English church (probably to service tax exiles and the occasional avalanche victim), a Catholic church and no doubt a Lutheran church somewhere. All of which started pealing madly at 10am on New Years day for one whole hour (not great with a hang over) and again at five the same day. We spent the decisive hour (midnight New Year’s eve) on my tiny roof terrace watching the maniac and wonderful unco-coordinated firework displays. They were coming from all angles and all places throughout the village. Huge numbers of them lighting up the snow covered mountain slopes and creating swathes of pink and red smoke. It was like being in a war zone, with explosions ricocheting off the mountainside.

I don’t ski; actually I’ve only donned skis once in California to go cross-country, being naturally accident prone, with bad balance and one shoddy knee it was only sheer willpower (one thing I have large amounts of) that kept me vertical. And frankly, I’ve never been interested in the glitzy culture that surrounds skiing, however I do love landscape, and hiking around the slopes of the Swiss Alps is stunningly beautiful. And once passed the yellow snow, euro trash, hydro dams etc, you find yourself in the muffled glorious isolation of snow scape. Particularly exotic for an Antipodean (did hear one Australian accent hiking) Forests with fir tree laden with snow, tiny bridges crossing rivers with banks studded with foot long icicles, the occasional mountain goat (although one tends to smell them rather than see them). And fantastic hamlets of tiny wooden chalets originally used by local farmers when summer grazing their livestock. It’s Narnia during the reign of the ice queen and utterly magical.

 The physical exertion involved in the hiking kind of switches off the mind and the imagination, and one falls into the kind of meditation that you know will lead to some sudden insight/story once back in familiar surroundings. But boy, was it glorious to emerge exhausted and sweaty to hit some mountain restaurant for a gluttwein and zuppe before turning back.

I was again reminded how wonderful location can be when serving as character. A couple of recent huge bestsellers have great examples of this – one is Twilight (great young adult fiction and Ms Meyer deserves her success). The author’s choice of location – a permanently foggy and mysterious, isolated rural community immediately sets the reader up for a supernatural experience. It also, of course means that the writer can control the number of characters and even the plausibility of events. The other genre book I’m recently read was the crime thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Again, the protagonist visits an isolated rural community to investigate a possible murder and again, the physicality of that location (rural Sweden) feeds into the atmosphere and incestuous ess of the wealthy industrial family he is investigating. It’s an old device but a good one, and certainly out here in Zermatt, it is easy to imagine anything from a second World war story about resistance fighters fleeing fascist Italy over the mountains, to werewolves living high up above the villages, to Russian oligarchs dying mysteriously on the slopes.

Back to mundane reality and the political maelstrom that is the rest of the world on Sunday.

photography - J.Asher
photography – J.Asher