It was September 10, 2001.
The British Airways agent at Vancouver Airport explained that the flight was overbooked, but if we could travel tomorrow, she promised generous cash compensation and hotel rooms.
W and I were Switzerland-bound to visit our high-school friend C. Eight individually vacuum-packed frozen premium grade Canadian steaks nestled in our luggage. Cash or steaks? The steaks won.
C’s face when she met us in Zurich said bad news. Airplanes had been flown into buildings in New York. Many people had died.
For the rest of the trip, we began each day trying to comprehend, along with the rest of the world, what had happened and why.
“When you are in Switzerland you must like cheese!” declared C. So off we went to Appenzell and the cheese factory.
I grew up with Cheese Whiz and Kraft singles. ‘Stinky’ was the word I would use for anything more challenging than Extra Old cheddar.
But as I popped a piece of fresh Gorgonzola in my mouth, my vocabulary expanded. So rich it would knock the socks off your taste buds. Beautiful bluish-green veins. The perfect chaser—a slice of ripe pear.
At Schynige Platte I encountered another Swiss-German obsession: hiking. Not North American hiking with the latest trendy clothing and equipment, but a normal outing for the entire family.
Grandparents and children stroll in everyday clothes. In the Swiss Alps I lost my fear of butter. Spätzle, tender flavourful egg dumplings pan-fried in butter until the edges are crisp. Rösti, grated potato cakes fried in butter until crispy on the outside and tender in the middle.
I saw no overweight Swiss in the restaurant. The secret must be to balance butter with hiking.
In Zurich I got my fix of street food. Bratwurst on a bun with a dab of mustard. A bit of multiculturalism—a fantastic Indian buffet.
On the highway just outside medieval Murten was the food highlight of our trip.
C brought the car to a screeching halt when she saw a sign advertising mushroom dinner. What a delight! I never knew mushrooms came in so many sizes, shapes, and colours, or could be served in so many delicious buttery ways.
We parted in Sienna, after enough adventures to fill a book. W and C went off for a week in Tuscany, while I caught the train to Rome to return home.
In the lineup at Rome’s Fiumicino, Heathrow was rumoured to be fogged in, or under a bomb threat, or both. Soldiers with machine guns guarded the entrance to the security checkpoint
I opened my passport to the photo page. To my horror, C’s face looked back at me!
I took a deep breath, uttered the only Italian phrase I knew, “Buon giorno”, and thrust my papers at the officer. A glance, and he handed them back. Not believing my luck I pushed on, making it through two more checks.
At the Heathrow gate for my flight to Vancouver, my luck ran out.
“Do you know this is not your passport?” the British Airways agent inquired politely.
This was my Oscar moment. “Oh, no!” I replied, looking shocked and— hopefully—helpless.
A Middle Eastern-looking man and I stood aside as the rest of the passengers boarded. Then the BA staff huddled. Because my luggage was already on board, I was allowed to fly but was red-flagged going through Canada Customs.
I had eight long hours to dread the upcoming ordeal. Fortunately, they understood how the passport mix-up happened. The wonderful grapes they missed are yet another story!
At a moment in history when the world went mad and I lost my identity, Europe gave me refuge.
Often as I stand in the produce section of Extra Foods, reaching for the white button mushrooms packed in blue Styrofoam, the aroma of those buttery mushrooms nestled beneath flaky pastry comes back to me.