Sunday afternoon at the Gare de Fribourg. I’m just another of hundreds of tired-looking people carrying pack-sacks and huge unwieldy bedrolls on their backs or heads. While I’m not the Swamp Thing I was a few hours before, I still smell distinctly of wood smoke and I wonder if I’ll ever be warm again.
Let’s flash back…
I had no plans for the weekend and I had heard rumours of a big CouchSurfing event in Neuchatel, so I figured, why not? The organizers were asking people to bring food, drinks and camp mattresses. A real camping trip! When I was a kid my parents never went in for that stuff and in the time I have been out of the house, the opportunity never presented itself.
I took the train to La Chaux-de-Fonds, a village outside of Neuchatel, and had the usual minor anxiety attack trying to find other couchsurfers. Luckily with the third person I spotted with a bedroll, I got lucky…she was the organizer.
There were a good two dozen people there, from Fribourg and Neuchatel, Strasbourg and Lyon. I was the only Bern person. There were also two Romanian backpacker girls about my age, who had dark hair and beautiful brown eyes and, between themselves they spoke Romanian, which sounds like an invented language…centuries ago some Slavic woman and some Italian man had children and taught them a private combined language. “I have no idea what you just said, but it’s beautiful,” I told one of the Romanian girls at some point. There was also a guy from Belarus who was studying in Lyon, Sergei. We spoke Russian together and had a hilarious good time gathering wood while he reviewed with me a terrible Russian tongue twister. “Na dvore trava, na trave drava” It just means, “In the courtyard there is grass, and on the grass there is firewood,” but try saying it three times fast. I found another Russian conversation partner, a quiet guy named Hans. He was a Lithuanian Irishman who had just gotten a job in Fribourg, and as of then he spoke the least French of any of us. The CouchSurfing default language is normally English, since there is kind of an assumption that backpackers speak at least some English, but at this particular event everyone spoke French–because we could! Which for a francophile like me was kind of nice.
Of course there were drinks–a guy from Madagascar called Tooki had brought real absinthe…which tasted pretty much exactly like pastis, like bittersweet licorice. Someone else had brought Johnnie Walker scotch, someone else had brought weird sweet homemade moonshine from chestnuts, which was called “vin noir”– black wine.
The wine of all colours flowed freely as we cooked the sacred sausage. The ritual of roasting the thing is called a “torrée” and is like…a clam bake in Eastern North America, I guess. There’s a whole routine, which Tooki led us through step by step, shouting like a football coach. You put the sausage, the sacred saucisson vaudois which is as thick as an arm and almost as long, on top of a piece of tinfoil. Then you sprinkle (or heap, depending on personal tastes) onions and garlic inside, then you splash some white wine onto it– a sort of benediction, but it also flavours the sausage. Then you wrap the whole thing up tight, tight, tight like a baby, with aluminum foil and string. You have to use a ton of each, otherwise it may come apart and what a tragedy that would be. Then you bury the sausages as deep as you can into the fire– “le four,” the locals called it, the oven of the fire. Then for a whole hour–they must cook at least that long– you talk, drink, run around, play music, tend the fire, do whatever you like…usually roasting lesser bits of meat like chipolatas, kebab chunks, cervelats (smaller Swiss traditional sausage), bacon, bits of lard which were surprisingly tasty…just about everything. We munched on our lesser bits of meat, shivered in the rapidly cooling night, danced salsa, drank, chatted and above all sang, especially as it got late. Brassens, Trenet, Dylan, La Bottine Souriante, various jazz singers who would have rolled in their graves had they heard our renditions, all were fair game for our voices which became progressively worse thanks to beer, tiredness and shouting.
The sausage itself was fantastic…the onions, garlic and wine created a subtle sauce which infused its vegetable flavour into the thick, hot, juicy, sweetish hunk of meat. Worth the wait…mmm…mmm…mmmm. My mouth is watering as I write this.
Since the sausages take an hour to cook, it was very late by the time the last one was done, which according to Tooki is kind of the point; the last ones should be reserved for the campers who stay up. We ate one of the last sausages and saved the very last one for breakfast.
By then it was five in the morning. Our voices were shot from one too many screaming renditions of “Les copains d’abord,” “La prison de Nantes,” “La mer,” “Sitting on the dock of the bay” (if you can imagine a shouting rendition of “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” and a very loud call and response of random syllables that some guys made up just to give us a linguistically neutral thing to sing.
Around 5:30 I stumbled into a tent with my tent-mate, a guy a few years older than me named Ben, with beautiful brown eyes and a really relaxed, accomodating manner. Ben is a veteran of the Swiss Army (although that’s not really so exceptional considering Switzerland has universal male conscription). “This sleeping bag probably still smells like the army,” he said. We were able to slap together a sort of bed with my mattress, his sleeping bag and pad, our coats and a thick anorak another guy had lent me when he saw how inadequate my rain jacket was fr the weather.
We had no sooner said goodnight than it started to pour. And I mean pour. The echoing drumbeats of the last three guys who were awake and playing turned to shouts and were then drowned out by the ssssssshhhhhhing of the rain. Luckily we were warm and dry in our tents; we did not even want to think about all of our kit, that was being beaten to a pulp by this crazy rain. Despite the sleeping bag, it was a frigid, frigid, frigid night. This was cold October rain, not summer rain. We were all too tired to budge until 10:30 the next morning. The rain was still coming down as we raced to salvage what we could. My camera survived; Ben’s phone didn’t. Our clean clothes technically did, but they were all soaked. It was eight degrees up there (46 for the Fahrenheit users) and I didn’t think I would ever be warm again.
Since Fribourg is four-fifths down the road to Bern, Ben offered to take me back, with Hans. We were blasting the heat in the car trying to warm up when suddenly Ben said, “I know what will warm you up! Rostis and fried eggs!”
An hour later we had all had a turn in a hot shower and were sitting, dressed in clean clothes, in front of enormous plates of shredded fried potatoes and fried eggs. I was really overwhelmed by Ben’s kindness…seriously, so many people don’t even bother to share when their meal is bigger than yours, there is even an unwritten rule on CouchSurfing that you feed yourself…simple kindness and simple food made me feel so much better about the human race. Then we all had a nap and a long, wandering conversation about computers. Then it was time to go. I grabbed a kebab for the road from a little kebab place made even more cramped by dozens of bedrolls from returning campers, then savoured it under a shaft of sun…slowly but surely warming up. A weekend well spent, I’d say.