When it comes to skiing in Europe, there’s no such thing as too much of a good thing.The Höllkarbahn chair lift is my fourth of the day, each one several hundred meters higher than the last, and finally the mountaintop is in sight. To the left is the peak of the Greitspitze, 2,872 meters above sea level. I know it’s the top because a wooden cross stands at the peak. To the right is another mountaintop, the Palinkopf, but instead of a cross, there’s an Austrian flag. Neither of those objects is particularly unusual. People have been putting crosses on top of mountains for centuries, and I am, after all, in Ischgl, Austria. It’s the security camera pointed at the lift that catches my eye, and then, the pylons ranged along the ridge — the ones that look like marbles stuck on top of battleship-gray drinking straws. I turn to my neighbor on the lift. “What’s that?” I say, pointing. She doesn’t speak much English, and my German is limited to guten morgen and apfelstrudel, bitte, so she turns to her right, to her son. He listens; I repeat myself. He confers with her in German. She turns to me, confident she knows enough English to communicate this much. “They watching us,” she says.
They would be the Swiss. When I ski a few feet beyond the lift, I’ll be in Switzerland. It’s neutral, not part of the European Union. But it’s not neutral about taxes, and this border has been a smuggler’s haven since the 19th century, when the Swiss government took pity on the then-difficult-to-reach valley, where trade with Austrians was the only trade to be had, and decreed it a customs-free zone. Smugglers loved the idea: They bought up tax-free cigarettes and alcohol and “creatively imported” them into Austria. Even now, brave, sneaky folk stuff more than their duty-free limit of vodka and tobacco into their backpacks, and much of the time, they ski past the Paznaun customs hut without a second glance. But then there is that story about the woman with the bag full of Rolex watches. Swept up in one of the customs office’s periodic fits of zeal, she lost the watches and suffered a 20,000 euro fine.
I have my passport in my pocket. But no one asks to see it. A few kilometers of ski run later, I’m walking the streets of Samnaun, shopping in perhaps the only duty-free village in Switzerland. No uniformed Swiss has accosted me. Only saleswomen interested in selling me a watch for 250 Swiss francs, or at the very least, a log-sized Toblerone for seven. I opt for the chocolate. And the apfelstrudel, on a sunny terrace on the village’s principal street, surrounded by Europeans in ski boots and Gore-Tex, their faces lifted to the sun sliding down the mountains.
But soon I have to move, or the waitress will find me dozing on this sunny, sheepskin-cushioned wooden bench. I’ve slept 10 hours over the last three nights. Not that I’m complaining; volunteers don’t. Especially not when they’re on a mission to ski in France, Italy, Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia — on three lift tickets.