Maybe there is a name for people’s tendency to travel to cities or even countries distant from the one they’re living in, and there is probably a physiological and psychological explanation for it. Though I know neither the reason nor the name for this inclination, I do know that I’ve also largely adopted the trait. In the year and a half that I’ve been in Germany during this assignment, I’ve really only visited two German cities (Nürnberg and Berlin) — until this October, anyhow, when a friend’s visit finally gave me a reason to explore Munich in a little more detail.
“That one!,” a German exclaimed as he pointed at me from across a table at the Hofbräuhaus, “He’s from Chinatown!” Though I’ve kind of come to expect this sort of outburst at certain functions here, in this context his statement wasn’t entirely untrue: a few weeks earlier, I had just returned from a trip to a city that indeed had a Chinatown.
Most of my life has been spent outside of China, which makes explaining where I’m from a bit of a tricky question. Sometimes I explain that I’m from Chicago, which surprises colleagues because the division I’m working for now doesn’t have an Illinoisan presence; other times I say from Charleston, which doesn’t appease because “b-but you don’t look like a Charlestonian,” and other times I say from China, which is typically met with bewilderment because my English is unaccented. But of all the places I’ve lived for any longer time (i.e. excluding Seattle), it’s Chicago that still feels most comforting when I return. I was there for a high school reunion about two years ago, but a few weeks ago, in visiting a friend for a wedding in Wisconsin, I got to take a look around my old stomping grounds one more time. But first, the wedding, which took place in a quiet town about a half hour west of Milwaukee.
Between my seven visits to Zermatt, I’d say that I’ve learned this corner of the valley pretty well for a visitor. But ask about the valleys that surround Zermatt, or the mountains that ring Zermatt, and I can only identify the immediately recognizable. (Indeed, from my photos one would think I could only pick out the Matterhorn!) Beyond that valley, my knowledge is even rustier. The figurative breathlessness of the Alps is not limited to Switzerland; the breadth of these is imaginable but is practically unrealizable for those removed from alpine business, so it is with great happiness that I live so close now to the unimaginable vastness. While most of my hikes have been solitary, somehow the magic of the mountains burns stronger when a friend comes to visit.
The first mountain I was really drawn to was Mt. Rainier. Looming above the Puget Sound, it’s an emblem for the Pacific Northwest. The Matterhorn, too, stands tall above its valley. Here in the Allgäu, the familiar symbol is the Grünten: far from the tallest mountain in the region, but among the most recognizable because it’s among the northernmost mountains above 1500 m, a respected sentry to the Allgäu proper.
One might conclude from the last several blog posts that there are no mountains, or possibly even no life, in southern Germany, but this would be false. The mountains here are as rugged as any I’ve hiked — I’ve just been sitting on the photos for some time.
When I first started hiking, I knew only of names: Mt. Rainier, Mt. Si, Sauk Mountain, Mt. Pilchuck. I loved Mt. Rainier for its ruggedness and how it reminded me of my insignificance, but never once did I consider how these mountains were all connected or why the roads leading to their bounty were where they were. Then, in 2011, I visited Zermatt for the first time, where the Matterhorn lives.
With the exorbitant number of vacation days available to working Germans, a typical summer vacation lasts three weeks and is spent outside of the country. The second part is fairly easy to accomplish given Germany’s central location in western Europe. The duration, however, is another story. I haven’t fully wrapped my head around being gone that long. (Even China this year was a two-weeker.) And so it was with two friends in Paris for a wedding and three more from internships or working in the past that I could meet the second condition but stuck to what I was familiar with on the first: an extended weekend vacation. With rain nearly every day, it didn’t quite turn out photographically as I would have liked, but one night — the last night I was in Paris, incidentally, and of course one I didn’t have my tripod with me — the skies cleared.