The sun knows no favorites
Life has such gentle ways of taking care of us. Take my friend Maurice, for instance. When we first met I was hunting for an old hayloft in the canton du Valais in my native Switzerland, hoping to transform it one day into a chalet -- nothing extravagant -- just an old "mazot," as they are called there. I had been offered one by a rather wily farmer and later returned to inspect it with my mother and a friend. As I was poking round the thing, a quaint figure made its appearance in the doorway of a neighboring hayloft and approached us, at first hesitatingly. "The wood's all rotten," he whispered to my mother after a brief hello. "Well, you'd better tell my son," she replied," he's the one who wants to buy it."Skip to next paragraph
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So he came over to me, a middle-aged Swiss mountain peasant, his old, dilapidated hat askew, straw all over his woolen jacket, which was buttoned wrong. "This one, 'tain't no good," he said in the rich accent of the Val d'Herens. I looked rather surprised and a bit offended to have my abysmal ignorance of old "mazots" so blatantly exposed.
"When you take this thing'um to pieces, you'll lose at least 20 percent of the joints. They'll just break like matches.And the bottom logs, see, all rotten. . . ."
Suddenly, he stopped and looked at me. Amazing blue eyes, crystal clear like a mountain stream, gentle, with that touch of modesty some older country folks still express in front of city people. "You and I," he continued, "might one day be neighbors. And I want to be able to look you straight in the eyes. If I'd let you get a bad deal," he added with his faulty grammar, 'well, I jus' couldn't look you straight in the eyes."
To him it was all so evident and straightforward that it became evident and straightforward to me.
From that moment on, Maurice and I became close friends. We wandered up mountains together; prepared raclettem -- that fabulous mountain invention of rich melting cheese grilled in front of an open fire and served with boiled potatoes, pickles, and other delicatesses;m sat up nights singing folk songs and playing the guitar -- a potpourri of melodies of English, Canadian, Indonesian, Swiss, American, Dutch, Italian origin, with an added dash of unrecognizable Maori to make it a little piquant; took part in the yearly fetem of the alpine pasturage, where Maurice had his cows, and drank the world's best milk; picked mountain berries and rhododendron.
I have described Maurice as a man of "apparently very modest means." This is true if you take into account only his 12 cows, nine goats, 15 sheep, 3 1/2 small fields (solely for hay), 500-year-old chalet (yes, in original untreated melezem redwood), four pear trees, odd hayloft or two, and three beehives.But what a Midas of human kindness, what a wealth of generosity and goodness, pure childlike simplicity and innocence, and instant hospitality -- rare in these high alpine valleys, which were virtually cut off from the rest of the world till the '20s.
Yet there was one great tragedy in this middle-aged bachelor's life: solitude. Twelve years earlier he had lost his mother, with whom he had lived all his life. When we met, he had barely recovered from the shock and he lived alone in a small abandoned hamlet where, in winter months, he spent long periods without seeing a soul.