It was New Year's Eve, about six months after I had moved to Switzerland. I had come from Bern to spend the holiday with my aunt, uncle, and cousins in their cozy farmhouse in Flumserberg and someone suggested fondue and tobogganing in nearby Graubünden for New Year's Eve.
As a Canadian, my experience with tobogganing was extensive and profound. Just beyond my backyard as a child was a large and popular hill where we would go nearly every snowy day. On the other side was a whole neigbourhood shot through with ravines begging to be sledded and GT racer-ed on. It was bliss.
I was eager to try tobogganing in Switzerland, and my cousin's girlfriend excitedly told me how you could sled down for almost a half hour. Wow! That must be some hill.
At around 6pm, we took a bus up a steep and winding road to a little chalet restaurant full of families celebrating the New Year. It was a grand time. A bunch of my cousins' friends and colleagues met us and we ate fondue and chatted for hours. At the end of the meal the server brought around a bottle and started pouring shots.
"Have you ever had Röteli before?"
I hadn't but it was delicious. I let him pour me a second. Then a third. My cousin's girlfriend turned to me, "you'd better slow down, you'll have to navigate."
I giggled, it doesn't take too much to navigate a big hill. After the drinks, and toasting the New Year, we gathered outside the chalet. Then everything changed.
People started getting out head lamps.
"What are the head lamps for?" I asked my cousin.
"To help you navigate," he said, handing me one.
"Are there no floodlights on the hill?" I asked.
He gave me a funny look. "There aren't any lights on the road."
Everyone was walking over to the place where the buses had come up the mountain. The families that had been in the chalet were starting to steer their sleds down along the winding, slippery road. My cousin handed me a toboggan.
"You're ok to go alone, right?"
Then I noticed that all of my cousins and their friends were in pairs—everyone had a sledding partner but me. I could taste the Röteli in my throat.
"You'll be fine," my baby cousin gave me a pat on the shoulder and jumped on her sled with her boyfriend, taking off down the road.
I gingerly got on the sled, adjusted my head lamp, dug my heels into the snow, went about 5 meters and a family with a grandmother and two school-aged children blew past me, whooping and hollering. This was going to be a long half hour.
As I quickly learned, navigation was indeed key. At the end of each straightaway you had to negotiate a sharp turn, otherwise you would be flung off into the forest. Then you had to contend with the wildest Swiss I have ever encountered, all flying past at break-neck speed.
Then came the buses.
Buses were carrying people back up the road, and when you saw their headlights you had to throw yourself into the side of the mountain to avoid being crushed under their wheels.
At the bottom of the hill I was white-knuckled and teary. My cousin smiled at me, "oh well, your year can only go uphill from here."
That night I made a vow to myself to never toboggan again at midnight, with a headlamp, tipsy and alone, on a road with buses. And I have kept that vow. But my secondary vow never to drink Röteli again was quickly forgotten, and I have often stirred it into Rivella since.
2 shots Röteli
Fill a glass with ice and pour over the Röteli.
Fill to the top with Rivella then stir.
Garnish with lemon.
But what is Röteli?
It's a liqueur made with dried cherries and spices that dates from the 19th century (perhaps earlier). It was traditionally made by families in Graubünden, each using a different spice mixture. In early 1900s traditional recipes were collected and experimented with, leading to a standardized version that could be mass produced.
It is indeed very traditional to drink Röteli on New Year's Eve. In the olden days bündner bachelors would go from farmhouse to farmhouse visiting unmarried farmer's daughters. At each farm they would sample a glass of Röteli that the single ladies (under the watchful eye of their mothers) had made. Some saw the drink as a kind of love potion, and often these visits would result in marriage proposals. The further back in the valley the bachelors went, the drunker they got, and the better looking and more appealing the daughters became, giving a big advantage to those who lived in remote farmhouses.