Rilke in Switzerland

David Mollin

The door had jammed and the snow fell. A hush? So they say. It's always hushed when the snow falls here, in the valley.

I keep pushing at the door, a heavy-set wooden number, common for chalets in Klosters and the Graubunden area as a whole, common for chalets to be dark, dark wood everywhere reflecting no light, and wooden panelled ceilings, low. The walls are stone, cave-like, rounded and my kicking is probably waking the neighbours both upstairs and down. Why won't it close? Maybe it's just got colder over night and something's happened to the wood. Shouldn't expand, not this thick stuff made out of an old oak tree, barely trimmed. I study it some more, while considering other things at the same time, just a way of leaving my mind open for some direction to intuitively come to me. I considered the corridor, same curved walls as in the chalet. I look at the little 20's ski postcards framed and leading upstairs to the flat of the Swiss pilot and his good wife. 7 a.m. They are retired so what time do they get up? If they weren't retired they would be on holiday, so either way I have no idea if they have been woken by my kicking or not. Downstairs is a strange old man, tall and thin with a Dutch name, van Wacken or something. It's on his doorbell but I don't look that closely. My name's not on the doorbell so what is it to me? Van Wacken is extremely charming when you bump into him. His wife is so friendly that it makes you happy. Says she loves London more than any other place and when will I be going back there? I have no idea, I say, broad grin, chatty if required. The pilot is charming as well, hearty handshake that invites a hearty hug, a wrestle to the ground, a big manly kiss on the choppers. Good people to have around if you are not shifty. And I am trying hard not to be shifty, every waking moment.

It's chillier in the corridor, could be the cause of the door jamming, warm chalet, chillier corridor. Anyway, I give it an almighty kick and its closed. I hope I will be able to get back in, but just in case I need it I have a fork to wedge in and help ease it open on my return.

Van Wacken's wife is at the door as I came down the stairs. She is dressed.

'Beautiful morning, no?'


'We are going to drive to Davos, we are meeting people for lunch today in a restaurant, my husband's friends.'

'Have a lovely time!'

'You must come down for a drink one evening, sitting up there all on your own!'

'I will, but I have so much work to do and I need to get it done before I leave.'

'And when do you leave?'

She asks me every time.


It's thick snow outside. The three parked cars are three mounds of white, gentle and soft. Hushed. It's hushed in the snow in the valley. Everything is rounded and what sounds like a distant airplane is the only sound, and that stays there in my ears. My head is enclosed in a wool hat and I have long johns, jeans and ski trousers on, gloves and a jumper or two. I feel hot apart from my face. I don't feel elegant, I walk like a man advertising tires. I walk along the path that leads along the river in to the village. I plod. I don't like the snow although this morning the whole place looks like a drug experience - blue skies, bright sun and sparkling white ground. Station to Station would be good to listen to in this place. Up above I can see gondolas taking people up the slopes. Tiny little people like little black money spiders, swarming down the clear slope between the dark pine forests on either side, swarming until out of sight behind a ridge of more trees. I don't ski. Tried langlaufing, or cross-country skiing, but I have no equipment now. My wife, whose parents own the chalet, taught me how to langlauf, but all their equipment was destroyed by the big flood of 2005. They had kept it in the basement and the whole place was washed out, sunk, along with much of Klosters. Much of the area around the river is now rubble and broken tree trunks, a problem in summer, but in this snow it is irrelevant.

Even if I did have the equipment, even if my wife's mother had wanted to replace them, rather than spend the money on a new flat screen TV, I doubt I would be skiing now. I am just not that way inclined, not unless my wife is here. I often wonder what I would become if I stayed here much longer, on my own, waiting and working as I am doing? Unrecognisable to my family, perhaps. Like my mum after dad had gone. I have spent so much time in London amongst people (wherever you turned) that I was sure I had an identity - not so, I thought these days. My identity is slipping away like snow off a roof. Is that a good metaphor? Seems to suggest I am a roof, which I am not. But I do slope when I walk, always have done and have always been told to straighten up, for the sake of my back. I would manage it for a minute or two and then the slope would return. I was sloping towards the village now as fast as this clothing would allow me too. Brisk is the word for it, brisk and sloping. I slope more up here, in keeping with the mountains. Their gradient is gentle, not upright, like mine. A gentle man, bordering on scared, bordering on stooping. Maybe the stoop, as I now call it, is Dickensian. I had lived much of my life near the fictional Marshalsea debtors prison from Little Dorrit. Maybe I picked it up and have subsequently brought it here to Klosters to the chalet where the men stand upright and charming, along with my dark unkempt hair and stubble. A chimney sweep? Or was that in Mary Poppins? The hills are alive with the sound of chim-chimeny-chim chim churoo. A hearty handshake and the bleedin' Royal Academy. These hands shake, they are not pilot's hands or the hands of a charming upright Dutchman involved in some shady business no doubt. The well-trained wife is a dead giveaway. They are hands of a Londoner, by God. And that is what I bring to the table. The qualities that come from living near a fictional debtors prison from Victorian times. Neigh, not just Victorian times, the oldest part of town, Roman, the part of town in all the original maps of London. I need that around here, and the more I stay here the more I realise my qualities. Not langlaufing, not broad grins, but a history that is sharp and defined here against the snow. What would my wife say? Here against the snow, looking at my new found self, like a rucksack? She knows already, a voice says unto me. My own voice but it still spoke unto me. It did that with increasing frequency while I was here in the valley.

The restaurant I was going to for breakfast was just on the corner of the main street at the turning for the station, opposite the oldest hotel in Klosters, big and imposing with lots of little windows for tiny skiers. It was built for skiers when they all used planks and had TB. Now I have no planks and TV, a big wide screen TV with Thomas Mann debating a cure. I could do with a break, and wanted often to stay at the hotel. It was free of the close proximity I was experiencing at the chalet with the neighbours. Little windows, wifi and a pool, I would rather that. I love hotel receptionists in this part of the world, German or Swiss, professional, well trained, impeccable. Polite like bankers in Zurich when you have a large deposit. Swishy nylon uniforms for the ladies and starch white shirts for the men, little ties down to just above the belt, near the bellybutton, just below the bell on the counter. I wanted a large deposit or even just a key. This was the place for deposit fantasies, I had had them ever since I first started coming to Switzerland, and this extended visit to Klosters was no exception.

No large deposit in my pocket. Just a trudge through the snow, past the Klosters Sportzentrum, playing host to a snow plough, preparing the ice for the coming days activities, wheeling around elegantly in yellow. Some well-dressed folk in fur and black fedoras were out already with their dogs. Fine breeds, but still shitting on the snow. All along the path are red bags with doggie faces on them to collect these small hot deposits, steaming straight out the oven. Brown stains and yellow edges along the path, even at this early hour. By midday there will be an ochre border all the way to the bank. Fine snowfall, fall on this stain, cover up the doggy stain that offendeth me. Fine snow sprinkle daintily on my nose.

Schneiders is where I'm heading. It's where I plan to meet Jack. It's where I told him to meet me. He is coming up from Zurich, left an hour ago so should be here anytime now. He doesn't know Klosters well and so this was the safest bet, being next to the oldest and biggest hotel in Klosters. He wanted strong coffee, so this fits the bill. As I cross the sludge road to Schneiders I get a call.

'Hi Mate'

It's Jack, loud and clear.

'Jack, where are you?'

I can't see that hotel you told me about, the what's it's name?

The Vereina

Yeah, that's it. Like vagina, without the 'g'!

Jack laughed loud.

'I'm near the station but can't see the hotel, mate'.

'Can you see a coop?'

'No mate, no coop.'

'Which station are you near? There's two you know, Platz and Dorf.

Klosters Dorf

'You want Klosters Platz. It's further up the road. Keep going up the same road for a kilometre and you'll see the hotel on your left. Directly opposite is Schneiders. I'm outside now, I'll wait here for you.'

'Alright, Mate. Stay there.'

Klosters, like a lot of Swiss mountain villages, is built along one main road. It makes the village long and stretched out, and also means that there are two railway stations, Platz and Dorf. Davos, the neighbouring Ski resort is the same. It makes sense, given that they are in a valley along a river. Jack was at the lower end, the end he would hit first coming up the mountain from Zurich. I over focused on the drivers of all the cars making their sluggish 2nd gear way up the sludgy hill known as Landstrasse.


'Hi mate.'

He had parked his car and was walking towards me. He had an old red Peugot 106. No wonder he was nervous on the phone about coming. As late as last night he phoned and said it was unlikely he would risk it, what with the snow falling as it had. But he made it.

'You're looking smart, Jack!'

He had neatly cropped hair and trimmed beard. New glasses by the look of it, thick rimmed.

'Always like to look my best. Where's this Schneider place then?'

'Just here. If you want a croissant then get it in the shop first and take it in with you, it's all the same place but that's how they do it here.'

'Just coffee for me, mate.'

We went in to the cosy warmth of the caf, warm wooded decor. Paintings on the wall like Debuffet-come-aprs-ski smooch, in seventies ski suits. The paintings didn't encourage young couples getting together but were steeped in nostalgia and aimed at parents. To our right was a play area for kids. My wife and I plan to have kids, I want to be a father.

Jack glanced at the play area and the English nanny looking after the two very well-behaved children quietly playing with tiny little frowns.

When's your good lady wife coming, mate?

'She isn't. I'm supposed to meet her in Zurich. She hasn't said when.'

'Is everything okay?'

'I think so, but I can't get a definitive answer. It's worrying me. I can't stay here indefinitely, it's not my chalet, not my stuff. I can't wait much longer. It's not even my money, I haven't been paid now for six months.'

'She's sold the house in London has she?'

'Yeah, as far as I know. We have money in the bank, but it was her house, and so her money. Anyway, she should have found somewhere in Zurich by now for me to come down.'

'Not that easy in Zurich, mate. Told you that before.'

'I want to leave now. I've done the work I needed to do, sent it off, now I'm waiting. Waiting for my money, waiting to join my wife.'

'You're married. Her money's your money too.'

'Doesn't feel like it, Jack. I like my money, my room, my stuff. Then I like our money, our rooms, our stuff. Without the first, I find it hard to like the second.'

'You want to stay with us in Zurich?'

'No, Jack. Thanks. It can't be long now.'

'You gotta snap out of this, mate, this waiting. That'll drive you mad up here. Just talk to her directly. Tell her to get her finger out and find a flat.'

'I will. I will, Jack.'

Jack was a man of action, been a supervisor most of his life, on building projects, airports, docks, even an old yachting jetty near the Grindelwald.

We paid and said our goodbyes. I watched his little red Peugot drive down the road.

I went to the cash point. Everything here has to be done with cash. Coop doesn't except cards. Nor does the little gift shop. The lady at the little gift shop proudly announced when I was last in there, that by not taking credit cards, she had avoided 'the credit card crunch'. I was glad for her but left the present I had chosen for my wife on the counter, unpaid for. Now I make sure I have cash, Swiss francs, from my wife's Swiss account. Going further than Sterling, which, according to one expert, was not moving, unwanted, sitting in its own stagnant morass. I certainly didn't want to use Sterling. I wanted to use francs, 300 of them in little notes, my chosen option, crisp and warm in my wallet, in my pocket, in my big thick ski jacket. Coop welcoming, Coop with Christmas trees and sledges piled high outside, and little red Christmas star plants in the doorway, next to the budgie seed and logs. Inexplicably you need a Franc to get a trolley here, as if it was Yeading. Maybe the aristocracy that populate this branch of the coop take the trolleys out to load their cars and just leave them on the pavement. No difference, people are people, trolleys are trolleys and given half a chance someone's going to leave them stranded in the street, or down some alley, or even over a railway embankment. Yeading set the record for this - 86 Tesco trolleys recovered from a housing estate there. It was in the news. Sometimes Klosters looks like a big housing estate, and the franc in the trolley just brings it all home. Chalets are noisy flats, lets face it, but they cost a bomb. They don't cost me a bomb so naturally they are going to resemble housing estates, because the one thing that persuades people that this is not a housing estate - the price - is not an issue for me. It is all trashable and I wonder whether it is worth sacrificing a franc just to dump my trolley down by the river. Mo't Chandon owns the chalet opposite my wife's parent's chalet. His is big. It is not a flat, it is the whole house, a block, as it were. He has so much money that he stopped the building of a second floor on new chalets being built opposite his, spoiling his view, by buying the floor. He now owns the non-existent floor of those chalets. That is many, many miles away from a housing estate, that's art. It's so artisitic you couldn't buy it for love or money at an art fair. It's a space from Flann O'Brian, impeccably surreal and creepy, Mo't Chandon entertains and we crawl under his floorboards locating what turns out to be a bomb. Don't steal from Mo't Chandon, there is nothing there, nothing that you would understand with your low rent attitude, your free ride down the slippery slopes of Klosters Platz. Am I stealing from Mo't Chandon? The thought had crossed my mind on a number of occasions, and the way he spends his money it is quite possible that I am, by default. Just by my lack of financial know-how, my ill-placed sense of aesthetics that does not begin to fathom what a terrifying thing beauty is, or was beauty terror we could only just endure? Something like that. Rilke said it, and Rilke would have stayed there, free of charge, and without disrespect for the floor that doesn't exist. He wrote about that floor, he knows beauty. He was aristocracy. He also died here, in Switzerland, not Klosters, or Mo't Chandon's place. He died in Valmont on Lake Geneva, having pricked his finger on a rose thorn in Muzot, septic skin infection leading to a particularly virulent form of Leukaemia, unfamiliar to medical science at the time. Nothing they could do, just swap the black postules daily and treat them lightly with cocaine. When he died his dark face speckled black with blisters was described as a hieratic head, or high-born Persian. That is all beauty too. Staying in the chalet of the Princess von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, loving walks in the garden, pricking his finger and getting blood poisoning. Someone was there to record the space left, via his beautiful little brown body, dry and peat-like. Someone was recording the space missing, the one bought in advance.

One could say I share Mo't Chandon's view, but it is a different view when one has paid good money for it. The flat below Chandon's paid-for space, complains about the noise above. That makes sense. Chandon wants that, he bought that right, the right to be complained about.

(c) David Mollin 2009