Nonfiction – Winner

GÂTEAU DE PAYERNE, by Patti Marxsen

You know the inertia of high summer, that wall of nicotine heat. It hovers above the plateau of the Canton of Vaud, invades the train rattling west without the modern amenity of air-conditioning. I concentrate on emulating the expressionless gaze of my fellow passengers. Switzerland is full of these stern, silent faces, these masks of extreme neutrality. Misery or mere reticence?  Secrecy or spiritual pact? Nuances are out of reach to outsiders. I function here in simple gestures, fleeting generalities, language reduced to the market exchange of essential wants and needs.

All windows are wide open as we arrange ourselves on cracked vinyl sets. I take peculiar comfort in the collective endurance of windblown hair. This, if nothing else, is irrefutable evidence of shared humanity. Outside, potato fields are the dull color of cocoa powder. Cornhusks hang ragged in the sun. And those clumps of evergreens huddled in the distance—they resemble the cloaked figures of Edward Gorey suddenly arrived on the shag carpet of Switzerland’s western plain. But surely no one in sight has heard of Edward Gorey. His name vanishes with turned fields and clumps of trees.

I am traveling to Payerne, the landlocked “county seat” of the Commune of Payerne best described in terms of what is not to be found there. No body of water. No grandeur of mountains. No university, spa, bookshop, library, or museum worthy of a note in a travel guide. If you search the Internet for hotels in Payerne, you will be directed miles away to Fribourg or Neuchâtel. Traveling to Payerne is an anti-excursion, a rebellion against the beauty I imagine others imagine when they think of life in Switzerland.

Even before Payerne was made by-passable by a superhighway linking Bern to Lausanne, this market town was known as a stop en route to somewhere else. But this is Switzerland where every village has its place in the long history of territorial dispute and cultural assertion. I stand to attention with a half dozen others at the hiss of arrival in a nearly deserted train station. So this is Payerne. Unsung and unremarkable. Home to the Swiss Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau, an enormous Romanesque church, and a surprisingly delicious hazelnut cake known—not widely—as the gâteau de Payerne.

The human urge to pause here began with a Gallo-Roman settlement founded by Publius Gracchus Paternus of Avenches (Aventicum in Roman times). It was Publius Etcetera who gave the town its Latin name, Paterniaca. Such facts, plucked from Wikipedia, add a touch of ancient glory to these hot, empty streets. There was also a moment in 587 CE when the Bishop of Lausanne erected a chapel in Payerne, a chapel that eventually led to the construction of a tenth-century church. This gentle hill rising like a loaf in the middle of a town is a pleasing site for a church, but I wonder why it took 400 years to progress from chapel to nave. Climbing the hill in the heat of the day, I note that Queen Berthe of Burgundy invited monks from the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny to come here at the end of the first millennium.  In a place where there is so little else to wonder about, it is almost exciting to wonder why a Queen would invite monks to her table.

The answer is sadly predictable. Widowed by age 20, Berthe endured a philandering second husband and saw her children negotiated out of her life into strategic marriages. She was rich and lonely, and so retreated to the pious tranquility of Payerne where she took pleasure in teaching local women to spin wool. No one knows when she hit on the idea of inviting monks to join her here. With her daughter Adelaide, she built a thriving monastic community. Thanks to Berthe, there is an impressive Abbatiale, or Abbey Church, just ahead. I observe it in throbbing heat, trying to imaging the gust of energy required to erect these thick walls and gothic bell towers. This massive complex recalls a time when God smiled on plain little Payerne. That was before the Protestant Reformation swept through Switzerland in the sixteenth century, chasing monks out of their rooms like vermin.

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