Expat adventures

  11.03.2022 Magazine

I adore jigsaw puzzles. I can lose myself in them, spending hours utterly absorbed as the image reveals itself piece by piece by piece. Years before we moved to the Saanenland I was given a large puzzle of a Swiss chalet. Set in a meadow against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, it was picture-postcard. The chalet had steep eaves, masses of scarlet geraniums under each window and two neat triangles of wood stacked under the outer staircases.

January chill
Little was I to know that I would one day own such a property. Our chalet in Rougemont was the perfect family home in many respects, but the heating system left a lot to be desired. The heat pump technology decided to pack up during our first winter and with outside temperatures well below freezing we learned that what remained of the chalet’s heating wasn’t equal to the task.

With no possibility of getting our heat pump fixed quickly, we turned to more traditional methods of generating warmth. The chalet had a magnificent fireplace and while we hadn’t burned wood to heat a building in about twenty years, we decided this fireplace would be more than ornamental. We soon learned that an open fire was an excellent way to heat the house. There was something about how the heat got distributed, as though it reached the very core of the chalet. The warmth lasted for hours, long after the embers had turned to ash.

The next question was how to source the firewood. Initially we bought small bundles from outside the local shops, but it quickly became clear this would not be a viable solution long term. Much more sensible to get some delivered to our chalet. How hard could that be?

Wood pile
I pulled out the phone book (yes, this was in the days before Google) and made my way down the list. No-one was able to supply. Hmm.

Changing tack I asked our neighbour for help. He smiled and nodded. “Yes,” he said. He would give us the name of a contact who would sell us a stere.

We felt as though we were being introduced to the inner circle.

A week later a wiry man reversed his Suzuki Jimny along the little path up to our chalet, flicked back the cover of his trailer and discharged a heap of logs outside our front door. So this was a stere. We stared at the pile of wood, uncertain of the etiquette. Were we expected to take care of the stacking? Before we had a chance to ask, the man began picking up logs. It was like watching a real-life jigsaw puzzle. With well-honed spatial awareness, he worked deftly, plucking logs from the pile and slotting them in one after another until he’d created order from chaos. In a matter of moments he had stacked four neat rows against the back wall of our chalet.

The in-crowd
Eight months later we decided to get organised and buy our stere of wood (yes, we were now up on the lingo) before the cold weather set in. I pulled out the number of the man with the trailer. Initially he said he couldn’t help, but that all changed when I mentioned our chalet name.

We were now on the list and I’ll admit I felt smug. Like we’d passed some kind of unspoken test which now marked us out as ‘locals’.

Being a jigsaw puzzle afficionado I was tempted to have a go at stacking the logs this time, but the look on the wood man’s face stopped me in my tracks. This apparently was a step too far. Locals maybe, but not that local.


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