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Worth the Trip

A Year Living and Working in Switzerland Opens Up New Discoveries and Appreciation for the Wonders of Food and Place

Article by Hannah Starbuck

Photography by Photos Provided By Hannah Starbuck

Originally published in Parker City Lifestyle

Food has really never been a point of interest for me in my day-to-day life. I usually view food as something to prepare and satisfy me for a big day of adventuring, both in the classroom as a teacher and in the great outdoors, where I spend much of my free time roaming and playing.

But a little more than a year ago, I left my job as a math teacher in Durango, Colorado, to take on a teaching position at an American school in Leysin, Switzerland. Like my love for the outdoors, this new experience was a way for me to take on a new adventure, see more of the world and experience different cultures.

I love a good adventure. Adventure, in my eyes, has often been playing outside on a trail, mountain or body of water, many times pushing limits. I convinced my sister and friends to go skydiving in Moab over spring break a few years ago. More than once, friends and I drove up from Durango, where we went to college at Fort Lewis College, to catch a show at Red Rocks and then drive back to Durango through the night to get to school on time the next day.

Usually, when I plan an adventure or travel, I pick places that cater to my interests, which are to play outside or to explore different cultures. But now that I’ve spent a full year immersed primarily in European culture, I’ve developed a genuine appreciation of food and drink and the central role it plays in culture. 

The first two weeks that I spent in Switzerland after moving, two things quickly became apparent to me. The first was that the good people of Europe love wine. One of the first events I went to in Switzerland was a wine tasting along Lake Geneva, and I noticed that no matter how much wine I drank, my glass was never empty. This was a terrific learning experience because it gave me a chance to appreciate the different flavors of wine and to begin the early development of my wine palate. Wine is a big deal out here. The second thing I noticed is food customs of different countries are taken very seriously. A few of the classic Swiss meals are raclettes, rostis (pronounced rosh-tee), and fondue. Yes, the Swiss love their cheese and take it extremely seriously. Every September when fall is approaching, there is an event called Almabtrieb, where the Swiss farmers will march their cows from the high alpine pastures to the valleys. The cows are decorated with flower crowns, and bells. This is a Swiss tradition as a way to celebrate the cows for the delicious milk and cheese they give. After going to one of these parades and seeing these celebrated cows and proud farmers, it verified for me how seriously food is taken on this side of the world.

After settling into Switzerland for a couple of months, I had a three-day weekend and decided to take a little trip to Milan, Italy. The Italians know how to cook. These passionate people showed me what good pasta really looks like, how it’s meant to taste, and they taught me how to enjoy a full Italian meal. This particular meal really confirmed for me the art of a meal and the thought that goes into a good meal from the Italian perspective: bread, wine, pasta, coffee and gelato. How could you not love the Italians and their food culture after an experience like that?

I’ve had the extremely good fortune to be able to travel to different countries around the world, a majority of them concentrated in Western Europe. After a year of living and working abroad, I've come to appreciate the food that’s put in front of me and to really savor each bite and sip. 

Tips for Eating Abroad 

1. Smaller is better: One thing I’ve learned throughout my travels is that the best restaurants and cafes are ones that don’t call too much attention to themselves. Some of the best restaurants I’ve eaten at have been small in size, hidden from main streets and lack some of the big advertising and marketing that other restaurants can afford to have. I say always give these smaller restaurants a chance over bigger restaurants, and support a restaurant that appears a bit more humble. 

2. Mind your manners: Teaching yourself some basic phrases and words, especially in a restaurant setting will take you very far. Spanish-speaking people are so happy to help visitors with their Spanish and are very patient. French people will appreciate your attempts to speak their difficult language. Phrases that you should absolutely know are "hello" and "thank you." It’s important to express gratitude to the people who bring your food; a genuine "thank you" while making eye contact goes a long way. 

3. Treat yourself every once in a while. I treated myself to one outstanding meal this summer, and it was in Paris. The entire evening itself was a joy. I bought a ticket to a cabaret show at the Moulin Rouge that included dinner and the show. I won’t say the price, but I will say the three-course dinner, champagne and brilliant show that I watched was worth every Euro. Enjoy your travels, and remember it’s okay to spoil yourself every now and again! 

  • First course at a cabaret show in Paris
  • A cow bedecked in flowers and a neck bell at the Leysin, Switzerland's Almabtrieb—a celebration of cows for the delicious milk and cheese they offer
  • Scallops, salad and red wine at a tiny cafe in Hakuba Valley, Japan
  • Wraps in Antwerp, Belgium
  • An amazing meat and cheese board with rose wine and bread in Lyon, France. 
  • A hearty bread bowl of Guinness stew and, of course, a Guinness to go with it after a big day of sight-seeing in Dublin, Ireland
  • The author, Hannah Starbuck, right, with her mother Robin Singer-Starbuck standing in front of the Matterhorn Zermatt.