I Found the Soul of Switzerland in a McDonald’s McGruyère

Zurich, Switzerland -- more colorful than you think.

Zurich, Switzerland: more colorful than you think.

Because sometimes a sandwich isn’t just a sandwich.

The trip from Zurich to Zermatt lasts three hours by train and climbs four thousand feet. It takes you from within twenty miles of the German border to within five miles of the Italian, though you wouldn’t know it by the rösti – a dish so ubiquitous in German-speaking Switzerland that the non-German-speaking Swiss call the division between them the Röstigraben, the “rösti ditch.”  With only a single transfer – a short and frenzied dash at Visp so efficiently timed it only barely works – you travel from the Zürich Hauptbahnhof – a grand, old, fin-de-siècle train station, one of the busiest in the world so filled with cigarette smoke you can barely make out the other side of the great hall – to a tiny station at the end of a one-track cog railway in a cluster of snow-covered chalets ringed by the highest mountains in Switzerland and free of the taint of internal combustion engines.

You step off the bright red train, into the Bahnhofstrasse, to a scene as pristine as a Ricola commercial. A caravan of horse-drawn carriages and electric taxis ply the town’s narrow, winding, frozen streets. There’s the jangle of bells, and the smell of baking bread. In the foreground, Rolex and Omega clocks broadcast the hour unerringly.

In the background, up where you couldn’t possibly miss it, looms a mountain so perfectly drawn it couldn’t possibly be real: the Matterhorn. It’s the symbol of Switzerland (just check your Toblerone wrapper). The first Swiss person in space, Claude Nicollier, took two stones from the Matterhorn on the shuttle Endeavor in 1993. It’s the mountain you drew as a child – too perfectly pyramidal, too perfectly snow-capped – before you were admonished to illustrate more realistically and you added unnecessary crags and trees and crevices.

Zürich Hauptbahnhof, smokier than your average Syrah.

Zürich Hauptbahnhof, smokier than your average Syrah.

And between the impossible Swissness of the snow-covered chalets, the fur coats, the chocolatiers, the horse-drawn carriages, the ticking clocks, the watch stores, the donation box for the St. Bernards, the heady scent of raclette, and the shimmering crags of the Pennine Alps, you spy, there in the middle-ground, as jarring as the cuckoo of a cuckoo clock, those Golden Arches you never notice back home.

Really, there should be no surprise to the sight of a McDonald’s juxtaposed with a world landmark. It’s a small McWorld, after all, where we digest exchange-rate theory by the Big Mac Index. There’s the franchise near Tiananmen Square, once the largest in the world. Since 1988, there’s been a franchise on the Champs-Elysées, halfway between the Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe. There’s a franchise in the Galleria in Milan and a fabled one near Red Square near Moscow – once the busiest in the world.

And yet the surprise never seems to fade. Maybe it’s the anxious realization that, zooming out from the alphornist of a 1990s Ricola commercial, you might find a Big Mac. That just downhill from the edelweiss-covered hillock where Heidi plays, past the tintinnabulation of the cowbells, you could buy a Royale with cheese. That at precisely twelve noon, the Hamburglar might pop out of your souvenir cuckoo clock. It alters the narrative.

Or maybe it’s the latent giddiness of the small child recalling his first Chicken McNugget, back before they were all white meat. Maybe it’s the return of that same errant child who once wrote his mother a letter requesting McDonald’s not be taken away as punishment for some infraction – taller now, older now, and more jaded, but the same soul when you get down to it. Maybe it’s that dirty feeling you get when you sample McDonald’s abroad, like visiting a sex shop or paging through a V. C. Andrews novel. Maybe it’s that feeling you’re somehow home again – reading quietly in front of a roaring fire, being hugged by your grandmother, and eating apple pie all at the same time.

Les grandes envies de fromages. Hungry yet?

Les grandes envies de fromages. Hungry yet?

Or maybe you just really want a McGruyère.

One morning, some months ago, I’d read over at Roads & Kingdoms that at McDonald’s in France – chez McDo – you could get a McComté or a McCamembert, or a McRaclette. There’d been a sort of feverish exchange of emails, excited conversation between the cubicles, talk of cashing in miles and booking last-minute flight and shipping home burgers, and then the silence and forgetfulness that always follows anything viral on the web settled in like the coma that follows one grilled onion cheddar burger too many.

But then walking through the old city of Zurich one cloudy afternoon, through the pastel-colored, döner-scented, jet-lagged haze of the Niederdorfstrasse, there was a sign advertising les grandes envies de fromage, “the great cheese cravings,” and it all came flooding back like orange drink from a soda fountain.

I’m no stranger to a cheese craving (a recent trip to the Ikea marketplace proves that well enough) – but then who is? And so I entered and ordered a McGruyère. The cashier shook his head, some linguistic confusion ensued (oddly enough, in a city where everyone seems to speak at least five or six languages and I know enough of two or three to order a sandwich), and I left empty-handed. But there were other sights to be seen – the view of the charcoal clouds kissing Lake Zurich from the bridges over the Limmat, the panorama of the old guild houses seen from the door of the Fraumünster, the imposing to temples to finance on the Bahnhofstrasse, the food hall on the top floor at Manor, the smoky great hall of the train station at evening rush hour on Friday – and amid the excitement of exploring a new city, the McGruyère faded from my mind like the memory of Mayor McCheese.

Map of Switzerland, with Zurich and Zermatt indicated.

Map of Switzerland, with Zurich and Zermatt indicated.

The great train journey followed the next morning, where I felt perfectly elegant consuming Appenzeller and Vacherin and, yes, Gruyère (but no holey Emmentaler), with crusty bread and a bottle of wasser mit kohlensäure I’d somehow successfully ordered in German – a language I don’t speak. I zipped past Aarau, Bern with its spires and clock towers just visible, and Thun with its lake. There was the mad dash at Visp, a spectacular ascent down the Matter Valley perched precariously above a raging stream, and the mid-afternoon arrival in Zermatt.

Zermatt, with its snow-covered chalets. Zermatt, with its fur coated-ladies clutching Prada bags and its chocolatiers and its horse-drawn carriages, with its ticking clocks and its watch stores and its St. Bernards and its raclette. Zermatt, with its line of Alps centered on the Matterhorn, where four of a seven-member team of privileged Britons perished rather spectacularly when a rope snapped following the first successful ascent in July 1865, three months after the surrender at Appomattox, ending the golden age of alpinism but establishing the town as a winter wonderland. (The rope is on display at the town’s museum.) Zermatt, with its Golden Arches there beneath the Alps, mimicking, or mocking, their form.

And there it was again, that grande envie de fromage, that great cheese craving, that had nearly abated running around Zurich and traveling by train through splendid snow-shrouded countryside. So I entered one of the nicer McDonald’s I’ve ever seen – natural stone walls, wood beams, a roaring fire, what looked to be authentic Eames molded plastic dowel-leg side chairs, free wi-fi. And is it expensive. A sandwich alone will set you back $10, while a Big Mac combo meal is closer to $15. The dollar menu has no franc equivalent; they just call it the Preisparade, the “price-parade,” whatever the hell that means, the saddest parade imaginable.

The Matterhorn from Sunnegga.

The Matterhorn from Sunnegga.

It turned out the McGruyère would not be available across Switzerland for several more days. (That explained the earlier linguistic confusion.) You see, in 2014, the Swiss harbor three great cheese cravings which they indulge, in typically Swiss fashion, on a highly scheduled basis. There’s the McGruyère (French, German, Italian), of course (available January 8-14 and January 29-February 4). Creamy and nutty like a savory Toblerone. There’s the McSbrinz (French, German, Italian), a hard cheese, like Parmesan, claimed to be the oldest in Europe, dating from 23 A.D (available January 15-21 and February 5-11). Then there’s the McChèvre (French, German, Italian), made from the milk of contended goats (available January 22-28 and February 12-18).

Last year, during Schwiizer Wuche, or “Swiss Week” – picture Beach Week with more dirndls –, the Swiss craved raclette and cheese from Graubünden, the Romansh-speaking far East of the country and the land of Heidi.

But the McChèvre was available – a differently flavored, more peppery burger made from 100% Swiss beef, a thick slice of chèvre, a piece of buttery Bibb lettuce, and some uniquely Swiss “special sauce,” on a denser, more elongated bun – and so one was had.

An American traveling abroad should absolutely do two things. First, avoid, if possible, being a stereotype. Don’t ask where the IMAX theater is in Barcelona, and, for God’s sake, don’t ask where you’ll find the nearest McDonald’s. Second, of course, visit McDonald’s.

The Zermatt McDonald's. Image: DavidMartynHunt.

The Zermatt McDonald’s. Photograph: DavidMartynHunt.

A few times in life, I’ve had my culture vividly reflected back at me. On a childhood trip to Paris, I saw throngs of French tourists at Euro Disney marveling at the impossibly pastel, overly nostalgic pastiche of turn-of-the-century Americana that is Main Street, U.S.A. The French saw America; I saw a streetscape of ice cream parlors and penny arcades somewhat like The Music Man but radically unlike the arterial roads and fast food joints of suburban Southside Richmond. But it was illuminating. Nothing makes you aware of the symbols and feel of your own culture like seeing it through the eyes of another.

Later, on a later trip to Montreal, I visited the city of Westmount – an Anglophone neighborhood in a sea of French – and understood why busloads of Chinese tourists show up every Saturday and Sunday to have dim sum at China Garden in Arlington. Nothing makes you acutely aware of the comforts and familiarity of home like being far from it.

And then there’s McDonald’s, immediately identifiable, iconic in its way, a classic symbol of coca-colonization, a sort of embassy of American gastronomy, like it or not. Last year, McDonald’s Switzerland featured “Stars of America” – a Steakhouse Classic, a Manhattan Grill burger, an L.A. Bacon burger. I wish I could have tasted them, wish I could have had my own culture reflected back to me like looking in the mirror on a bad hair day.

But then, pilloried as the scourge of globalization, McDonald’s has taken great pains to adapt its menus to local tastes. That was the point of the Roads & Kingdoms article, “Ronald McDonald, Globaliste.” This has been the subject of a hundred photo galleries here, here, here, at BuzzFeed, and elsewhere, and, as with everything, there’s a Wikipedia article. Last year, The Awl published a piece imploring us to “Build An Enormous McWorld In Times Square, A Xanadu Representing A McDonald’s From Every Nation.” Clearly, I’d visit. But then, of course, I’d probably buy that Hamburglar cuckoo clock, too. (Dear Swatch…)

Behold the McGruyère.

Behold the McGruyère.

And so how was the McChèvre? Honestly, not that great. It tasted…off. Indescribably off. But, as they say, so ist das Leben.

Several days later, it was McGruyère season. I bought my hunting license, donned a bright orange vest, and headed off down the Bahnhofstrasse.

Gruyère cheese is a favorite back home. I swear it makes the best grilled cheese sandwich. And what you find at home is generally identical to what you find in Switzerland thanks to the country’s, and the continent’s, system of appellation d’origine controleeindication geographique protégée, or AOC-IGP. Lest you forget how proud the Swiss are of their cheese (holes or not), Gruyère is everywhere. It’s served at McDonald’s, naturally, and with the cheese platter in the bistro car of the Intercity-Express. It’s at every breakfast buffet and salad bar at every hotel and every restaurant. Advertisements for the product are plastered all over Zermatt’s electric buses.

And so how was the McGruyère? Delicious. Really delicious. The kind of delicious you almost don’t want to admit to because it makes you look like an uncultured boob who doesn’t know you’re supposed to forget your childhood and suddenly turn your nose up at McNuggets. Like the best Quarter Pounder you’ve ever had – disgusting enough that your inner child inhales it in a Rolex second and scurries for whatever the Swiss put in their Happy Meals, delectable enough that your grown-up self can dress it up and safely take it home to mom packaged as a pedagogically-sound anthropological excursion. That good.

Zermatt.

Zermatt.

If Aesop’s taught us anything, it’s that every story must have its moral. So what did I learn from my McGruyère experience? If I were an intellectually honest chap, I might admit it was all just catering to a guilty pleasure. But that’d be cheesy.

Instead, I’ll say this: The rest of the trip was ski lessons, underground funiculars and century-old train lines that climb 5,000 feet, yodeling (yes, yodeling) at raclette night, a hearty meal of rösti and veal sausage halfway up an Alp, an ill-advised beer at 8,000 feet and a glass of Appenzeller (an herbal aperitif, not to be confused with the cheese of the same name) at après-ski, petting a St. Bernard at 10,000 feet, hot chocolate from Sprüngli, a silent, snowlit walk through a century-and-a-half-old warren of wooden chalets. In other words, a typically Swiss affair. But maybe none of these was as typically modern Swiss as that McGruyère, which maybe embodies the weird mash-up of cultures that has always characterized the Helvetic Confederation: a renegade alliance of small Holy Roman runaways at the roof of Europe, a slapdash amalgam of fiercly independent cantons, with four official languages plus a near-universal English presence, no cities over a million people yet four global cities, and 23% of its population resident foreigners not to mention a heavy international presence.

On vacation in the modern world, you can’t ignore the fact that you’re not in a postcard, you’re in a modern country with modern people who have to live there and eat there and who want to enjoy what they enjoy, not act as you expect them to. That’s why this American heard a bored Kiwi pop star, a rebellious daughter of one-time American country royalty, and a Swedish revival of “Cotton-Eye Joe”  as he learned to ski on the bunny slopes under the tutelage of Jake, a guy from Southwest England.

So there you have it: a sandwich, and a country, embodying both the localism of its countryside and the nonchalant cosmopolitanism of a major world player. The McGruyère is Switzerland, and Switzerland, I daresay, is the McGruyère. Eating, once again, is a political act.

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