In the mountains, there you feel free. And so we did, visiting Simon Garland and Rosemary Wagner at their home in a mountain village in eastern Switzerland. Simon and I both used to work for I.P. Sharp Associates back in the day, and he arrived in Zurich towards the end of my stay there. There he met Rosemary, who was keeping the books. They married, started a family, and twenty years ago took to the hills. They live in a small village of heart-wrenching beauty, quite insulated from the tourist trail winding along the valley floor to Klosters and Davos. Their youngest is now 18.
They do get the helicopters once a year though, shuttling the Great and the Greedy to the World Economic Forum up the road. We gather the Swiss rather congratulate themselves on this effort and only wish another 51 nations could be found to host similar events, so that these wretches might be kept out of mischief all the year round.
Simon pays about a third of his taxes to his commune, which has interesting consequences. First, they have real money to vote on, which keeps things interesting. His village has a primary school that no similar village in England could hope for. The roads are kept to the widths and surface quality they want, and in the winter get cleared promptly using their own snow plough. The village used to have a gasthaus until its owner wanted to move on, but couldn’t find a buyer for the business as a going concern. The commune decided it liked having a gasthaus, and bought him out; they are now looking for someone to run it.
This is a pretty successful repotting of a Cornish lad. It must help that his summer is as verdant as anything in Cornwall, that he has been working from home since before that was invented, and that the London weekender tide borne in by the M5 has washed away most of any Cornwall that he might have wished to return to. In the Perfect Life stakes, Simon’s scoring about as high as I’ve seen.
Switzerland doesn’t seem to have Britain’s worries about a democratic deficit, nor the disappearance of social solidarity. Simon and his neighbours can see each other’s tax returns. Their ancient house keys are large and irreplaceable — so they don’t lock their houses. From family life to public transport, something seems to be working there.
So was our drive over the Alps as, far south of Chur, we turned off the autobahn onto the old road over the San Bernardino pass, ascending via dizzying switchbacks to a cool rocky country above the tree line. But there is, Robert Persig observed, no Zen in the mountains, or anyway not much. So we filled our water containers with icy meltwater and descended to find lunch in Como.
Simon had talked about the hazards of driving in Italy, but for some reason had remarked that Italians are good drivers. I chewed on this, wondering what he might have meant. We’d discussed their taste for driving nose-to-tail very fast; also the habit of fast-moving cars of flashing their headlamps — as if they were emergency vehicles — and driving right up to one’s rear bumper. Perhaps Simon was complimenting their vehicle-handling skill, which is not the same as good driving, as the persistently high figures for Italian road fatalities attest.
At any rate, driving on the autostrade leaves one as wretchedly tired as hours of playing some intensive shoot-em-up video game, and for about the same reasons. By the time we reached Cremona on Sunday evening I was exhausted; it took a slow stroll through the ancient heart of this most livable town, a lot of birra alla spina, and possibly the finest pizza I’ve yet encountered, before I was halfway human again.