It was early evening and the snow capped Swiss mountains were turning pink. My new host mother stood up and announced that she was off to fetch the milk. Milk? Where was she going to buy milk at this hour? We were in a small village halfway up the side of a mountain of 300 souls.
“Why, from the cow,” she replied.
“Wait…. you have a COW?” I said all excited. A cow, a Cow, A COW !!! I love cows, always have. Family lore has it that when I would see a cow, I would have to moo at it. Important detail.. at it.. from a distance. I had never known anyone who HAD a cow!
I rushed up to my host sister’s room and found her doing her homework. “You have a COW!” She sighed and rolled her eyes. This was a detail that for some reason she never shared with me at our high school.
I must have gone on and on about it because the parents suggested that the next night I could go fetch the milk. “You mean I can go get the milk.. from the COW?” Ohhhh, I misunderstood what they said in French …. it was not only get, but also MILK! I was so excited! My host sister just shook her head.
So the next day, my host mother had a laugh as she dressed me as a “Swissesse” … I put on her long pants that were almost pedal pushers on me and one of my host father’s old blue work shirts that hung loose. I put my hair up and she tied a blue kerchief that completed the Van Trapp family look. Just before I walked out the door, she handed me a silver canister…with leather straps. A milk backpack!!! She pointed to a path up the mountain and indicated that I should go that way.
So off I went.
To my left was our side of the mountain, to the right, a spectacular view of the valley and the towering snow capped peaks. Swinging my arms and whistling, I gave a hardy “bonjour” to the villagers I crossed on the path. I was surprised at the people out and about, and that they seemed to know who I was and what I was doing.
Ah, naive me. As if a six foot tall American girl about to attempt to milk a cow would go unheralded in this small Swiss village halfway up the mountain.
My host father was standing outside the shed, holding a glass of wine, and talking with some neighbors I had not yet met. He greeted me good naturedly as I joined the group. (Yes, they even served wine at this first time event.) We stepped into the warm wooden shed that held two cows, one was being prepped to be milked by a large man. I gestured towards the cow and asked “comment il s’appelle?” That was my lame attempt in French to ask what its name was. My host father answered simply “Georges.”
Wait a minute. Were they trying to pull a fast one on me? When the man by the cow gestured that it was time for me to take my place on the stool, I stole a glance underneath to make sure it WAS a cow. Yup. All good to go.
Now the stool was a tricky thing. It had only had one leg so that it was easier to swivel into place and move if the cow moves. BUT it was made for a smaller model of people than myself. When I sat down, by knees knocked together and my calves served as tent poles spread out to the side to steady myself.
At one point I lost my balance and since both hands were grasping the udders, I smacked my face right into the side of the cow. To cover up my blunder, I thought I would make my audience laugh by saying “excusez moi, Georges.” And strangely enough, the large man in the group said that it wasn’t “grave.” (Why was he answering for the cow? The Swiss are really weird….)
After I had milked 5 squirts worth (hey, it’s harder than it looks!) They told me to pour it in the canister and take it down to the communal village milk reservoir.
Oh, I was so proud as I hiked back to the village. The first person who greeted me asked what I had been up to (ohhhh, as if he didn’t know.) I cheerful replied in French “I milked George!” The person did a double take. “Georges.. qui?” He sputtered. I was really perplexed. Did they give their cows their last names, too? Ok, these people are beyond weird. “Bah, Georges B_______.” I replied. Well, he stood there and just stared at me so I decided that I should just say adieu and continue on my merry way.
And then I got to the reservoir. I climbed up to the vat, opened the canister and said as I poured my meager drops of milk in
“c’est de Georges.“
The two men manning the vat stopped mid stir as I made my announcement.
When I got back home, I sauntered into my host sister’s room and announced that I had a successfully milked Georges. She put her pencil down and slowly asked,
Really? Her too? I let out an esasperated sigh and said “Georges B______.” She started to laugh…and laugh…. and laugh.
“Georges,” she was able to finally wheeze out, “is my UNCLE!!!”
Shit. One week in the village and I had announced to everyone that I had “milked” her old bachelor farmer uncle. Yup. That’s how you ruin a good reputation, folks. OR build one. Georges, now had a certain swagger… Even a good 20 years on at my host sister’s wedding he was still strutting about.
Last year, when I went to visit my host parents for the last time, my host father’s memory was fading fast. I was warned that he might not recognize me. So I just introduced myself to him as a girl who likes cows. It was the first time that I truly wished that someone would be able to remember the story about me and a cow called Georges.