After Switzerland

Note: Scroll down for information on merging Swiss and Canadian tax realities.

After a protracted silence during which we engaged in a little bit of wrangling with Canadian and Swiss tax authorities in an effort to avoid double-taxation, this blog sputters back to life momentarily to make note of another blog.

Note: The above icon and header belong to the Swiss Consulate. It is copied here only because the Consulate’s centennial celebration is the subject of this blog. Please do not launch a lawsuit against me, kind Swiss people.

Swiss foreign correspondent, journalist and novelist Bernadette Calonego happened across Hobonotes while preparing to launch her blog  Bernadette’s Take  for the Swiss Consulate in Vancouver, celebrating 100 years of official relations between Switzerland and Western Canada. She contacted me and we engaged in what was supposed to be her interviewing me about the Canadian perspective on Switzerland, but really it was me fact-checking my impressions of Switzerland with her.

I felt a twinge of nostalgia as I tuned in to her Swiss German accent that propelled me back into my not-so-great communicating with Swiss-Germans skills, which is to say that my English gets a little clunky when I try to wash it of cultural nuances that might be lost on non-Canadians. No worries, though, as Bernadette has been in Canada for over a decade, and so her English is superb. She might have wondered whether I am a real English-speaker though.

No matter.  She wrote this very kind post about Hobonotes. If you’re thinking of going to Switzerland, take a browse through her blog that touches on some of the cultural surprises that might lie in store for you.

And about those taxes: Canada and Switzerland are signatories to an international tax treaty or something like it, that assures Canadians working in Switzerland, as well as Swiss working in Canada, that they will not be taxed twice by each nation. Doesn’t that sound simple? Of course, it is not. It turns out that Canadian and Swiss notions about what constitutes a federal tax statement differs a bit. Don’t fret. Here’s the short of it.

In Switzerland, be sure to obtain your employer’s notice of withholding taxes. This document will detail the taxes they held back, which were paid to Swiss coffers and which constitute a deduction from your Canadian taxes.

We did this. The problem is that Canada doesn’t recognize tax statements from Swiss employers. They want something from the federal government. This struck us as odd given that they accept T4 slips from Canadian employers, but one does not raise arguments when in discussions with tax agents.

Canadian tax authorities insisted on a federal tax statement from Switzerland’s most federal of governments. The problem is that Switzerland doesn’t really have a federal government. They take the old United States idea of a confederation of states/cantons and they really mean it, and so it turns out that ‘federal’ tax statements actually come from cantonal offices. Don’t fear if you are reading this from Switzerland and have suddenly broke into a cold sweat at the realization you may have tax agents on your heels shortly after your return to Canada.

We have already broken into that cold sweat for you. But the stress of paying twice as many taxes as expected has suddenly fatigued me. I will write more about what to do about this conundrum later.

In the meantime, take a browse through Bernadette’s quirky blog. I think you’ll like it.

APRIL 10, 2013: TAX ADDENDUM FOR FOREIGN WORKERS & OUR EXPERIENCE: 

  • Revenue Canada will accept cantonal (state or provincial-level) tax statements. Contact the the office in your canton to request your “notice of withholding taxes.” 
  • To find your cantonal tax office, go to www.ch.ch,  and enter your town name or postal code in the search box.
  • Send an email via their online contact form with your request and be sure to include the term “notice of withholding taxes,” as more Canadianesque references (tax return, T4, etc.) might confuse the issue.
  • Expect a prompt reply. These are the Swiss, after all, a people who pride themselves on efficiency. In my search, I sent out four emails and received responses to all within 24 hours. Of the four, I took up the conversation with the one most fluent in English (for simplicity’s sake), who then provided me with the name of the individual who could provide the documentation. The appropriate electronic document was sent out within a week, and the hard copy followed soon after via post.
  • We concurrently enrolled our employer in a search for the correct tax document (leaving nothing to chance). They acquired the statement and forwarded it to us. It arrived shortly after the document we had chased down, so you might find it quicker to navigate your paper-chase on your own.
  • Language and culture issues:
    • In all government correspondence, use English, German, French and Italian.
    • On your first email, put English at the top as this signals to the Swiss that this is the language in which you are most comfortable.
    • Do not be taken aback if you receive a response in German/French/Italian only. This is not considered rude in Swiss society – you are dealing with their official government and they expect communication in their official languages. It would be considered rude to insist on your language being used (although they will make every effort to accommodate you – just be polite about it).
    • Important tip that no one will tell you about: If you do receive a response that includes any English, my advice is to seek help from this writer, even if he/she is not able to help you directly.
      • Ask them for the names, offices, emails and phone numbers of those tax staffers who can assist you.
      • Then use this person’s name in your subsequent emails, as this English-speaking staffer can provide behind-the-scenes support to your request, and bridge the culture/language gap.
      • How do you use their name? When you write to the offices that they recommend, open your subsequent emails with “Mr. X from the X Cantonal Office (provide Mr. X’s email and phone number in brackets) advised that I contact you regarding my request. If the person receiving your email has some language confusion over your request, he/she will likely contact your Mr. X (or Ms. X, whichever) for clarification, thus making Mr. X your culture and language agent.
    • Even after English has been established as your language of choice, it is then polite to place the language used by your correspondent in his/her response at the top of  your next email. For example, if you receive a response in German first, then follow suit as that is the native language of the tax personnel.
    • Use Google Translate to provide the French, German and Italians translations. It is not perfect, but it is acceptable.
  • When all else fails: If you continue to have trouble acquiring the necessary Swiss documents, contact a Swiss attorney to assist you. It will very likely be worth the legal fees to pursue this, rather than suffer double-taxation. Oh, which brings me to another point that can make your life easier. When you are exiting Switzerland, you will be required to have exit documents notarized by an attorney. Use an attorney fluent in English, and make sure you meet him, not just his staff. This attorney can be your point of contact for finding a Swiss tax attorney, should matters come to that. Keep his contact information after you leave the country. This might seem like an obvious thing, but it did not seem so obvious to us until after we ran into our tax snafu.
  • Be patient. You are navigating a bureaucracy and while it may seem frustrating at times, it will work out. While it took the Swiss less than a week to produce the documents, it took Revenue Canada two months to accept them (sigh). Revenue Canada, while being very helpful, was still unable to tell us precisely which documents would be required, although you would think they would know this as we were not the first Canadians filing Swiss tax documents in Canada. Just accept this as your tax reality and deal with it.

1: So Long

Packing is a science.

It was Vivian Moreau’s idea that I blog about our year in Switzerland. As a journalist with an entrepreneurial bend of mind, she suggested this would have the makings of a good travel book, which goes to show that I have hidden my aversion to travel from her quite well.

Everyone is a better traveller than me. Everyone. I like seeing new places, but I hate what it takes to get there.

This open-air cable car just opened in Lucerne. What a pity we don’t have time to ride it.😉

With the endless stream of travel books and websites available now, I have no illusions of making this into anything other than a semi-personal journal of life as a corporate spouse tagging along after my hubby, which many see as glamorous, but only because they do not know the personal hell corporate couples endure at the hands of foreign bureaucracies.*

Maybe in short and infrequent bursts, corporate travel is a happy novelty, but our experience over 30 years is that it quickly acquires the enchantment of a long-haul bus tour, which is to say, the bathrooms and sleeping arrangements are never as good as those at home.

Still, it is an economical way to see the world, and we’ve done it repeatedly, so the good does outweigh the bad. If the beds, bathrooms and bureaucracies are the minuses on this crazy life; a front-row seat watching how foreign people live and how their countries work are the pluses.

This is the last Hobonotes post, unless something faintly amusing occurs on our trip home tomorrow. For our friends and family reading this, see you soon. For strangers we picked up along the way, thank you for joining us and for your engaging feedback.

* Also, I will not do truly adventurous things, like fling myself off a cliff, trusting my life to a thin sheet of fabric (parachuting, paragliding, parasailing,  you name it, I won’t do it). This is a travel blog for the timid.

Somewhat Amusing Anecdotes You May Not Know

  1. Soon after starting this blog, a former colleague demanded via email that I delete a humorous excerpt from an email he/she sent to me some years ago.  I thought about replacing the excerpt with another email he/she wrote wherein he/she used some hostile terms that if reported to our Human Resources Department, would have obliged them to pull him/her through a meat grinder. I never ratted out my former colleague, and he/she is doing well professionally now. I like to think I had a hand in that.
  2. The humorous excerpt is still somewhere on this blog.
  3. The most hits this blog got in a single day was 885. It surprised me, too. It must have streamed into a commercial travel website somewhere in the U.S. (the source of about 845 of those hits).
  4. The all-time top post was the innocuous Luscious Lucerne.  It surpassed the previous top post on Paris and kidneys, which led the pack until this month.
  5. Most hits came from the U.S., Canada and Switzerland. I had readers from every continent and almost every country, but not one hit came from Greenland. Don’t they ever travel? I didn’t do well with African readers either, although I did score a fringe of readers there.

2: Swiss Surprise

Yawn. Another mountain.

Swiss cheese, fondue, chocolate, watches: These are some of the things we expected of Switzerland. It turns out, there’s a bit more than that.

Start with the spring produce: Switzerland is perched just atop Italy and is only a few hours away by train to the Mediterranean, so that should have clued us into its fresh fruit and vegetable market. The produce here is crunchy and fresh.

We did not expect to see cyclists up on the  mountainside Kleine Scheidegg trail, but there they were, introducing us to another Swiss national oddity – adventurousness bordering on recklessness. They brought the Red Cross to the world, making us think they are a cautious accident-adverse people. They are not. Their idea of safety does not follow a prevention-protocol, which makes sense – it is how they got so good at responding to disasters. They make so many of their own to start with, offering them plenty of training opportunities.

I had no idea that Switzerland has a keen wine industry. South-facing sloped farmland ribbed in vineyards surrounds our town and with French vineyards a stone-throw over the border, it makes sense that the industrious Swiss would get in on the act. As to why it never occurred to us that Switzerland is a wine-producing country: Some joke that it is because the French export their wine, while the Swiss drink all theirs themselves.

There is skiing, of course, but the Swiss are also passionate mountain-climbers, hikers and bicyclists. They love sports. Confusing us even further, they are also proliferate smokers. We cannot understand this.

They are conservative in their conduct, yet they also voted to build a facility for prostitutes to operate their business in Zürich.

There’s more. I knew chocolates heralded from this mountainous land, but so too does CaranDache watercolour pencils and crayons – the funky metal-tinned colours my sister-in-law used to paint clown faces on ours boys when they were young.

Racial and immigration issues headline frequently in Swiss news as the country, like the rest of Europe, copes with the flood of Albanian Muslims that pushed north in the wake of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, as well as Tamils and other far-flung political refugees who fled to Switzerland because of its liberal amnesty program. As Canadians, we are accustomed to hearing about immigration issues, but we had no idea that step-for-step, Switzerland has the same national debate going on that we do.

They love festivals, and they are crazy about music. It’s not just yodeling that tickles their ears: I have never seen such a large concentration of accordion players anywhere. They beat out the Americans when it comes to marching bands – they have them all over the place, some in costume and organized, while others who look like they decided to take their band practice out of the garage and on to the street, just for fun. The quality of music played by buskers here is outstanding. I am sorry to say it, but most of them would put Victoria buskers to shame.

What surprises us the most, however, is that such a geographically small place has such a globally large footprint – from the Red Cross to the United Nations to its international market for banking, pharmaceuticals (Roche, Novartis), watches, Swiss Army knives and more. They are a stunningly successful people who from so little have made so much.

But back to chocolate, more chocolate businesses than Lindt call this place home. So, too, does Toblerone, Frey, Nestle, Cailler, Camille Bloch, Favarger and more – it explains why despite the occasional scandal, Switzerland’s brand continues untarnished. After all, who can stay mad with a place so packed with chocolate?

3: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow or Tschues

Happy to be headed home, but a little sad to leave the land of castle ramparts and lovely, friendly people.

We are going through our social ‘exit process,’ which is much more pleasant than the bureaucratic one.

We said good-bye to our beloved Starbucks buddies who presented us with a Starbucks Switzerland mug.

Tomorrow we’ll say good-bye to the Lollipop girl who runs our favorite candy shop and who recently exposed her midriff to us to show a sweeping tattoo marking some Swiss legend that we could not understand. We also could not understand why a gal with such fabulous abs would want to colour over them, but that is the youth of today. Now if someone like me opted for a tattoo to visually sculpt my midriff into looking more concave and much less convex, that would make perfect sense. Calm down, Mom. I’m not going to do it.

Switzerland the lovable.

I said farewell to the most embittered glaring grocery store cashier who admitted I really wasn’t that much of a problem. I said so long over coffee and Swiss pastries to a Swiss/Afghani/Indian/American friend with communist sympathies and an adorable calico kitten, as well as her hockey-playing Swiss husband who mistakenly thinks the best team in the NHL is the Detroit Red Wings.

Venner Well: A Swiss warrior statue in Biel’s old town that embarrassed its makers by breaking off at both legs when being set up and then suffering follow-up breakages during stormy weather. The well dates back to the 1400s; the stone statue may date back to the mid-1500s, but the translated records were not clear on that point. It could be older.

Our hotel staff have been saying good-bye to us for weeks, but the intensity is now ratcheting up. They are threatening to lock the doors in a bid to thwart our ‘escape.’ They regularly offer a detailed comparative analysis on the merits of living in Switzerland versus Canada, always arriving at the same conclusion, which is that we will be back by autumn. We’ve been actively campaigning for the ones more familiar to us to come visit in Canada, with the caveat that room service at our house will not measure up to the hotel’s standards. *

Tomorrow we will meet with a young Indian couple and their two daughters who have become like our “Swiss grandchildren.” I preferred to think of them along the lines of nieces, but the parents keep referring to us in grandparent terms, forcing us to accept the fact that we are definitely well into our 50s. Yuk on that. We’re going to miss them, but again we hope they will stop in for a visit some time, although that is less likely as they appear Singapore-bound after their term here.

I have not said farewell to my Winnipeg friend and dame of roller derby fame named Jam Buster, because if our paths can cross at a random writers meeting at an all-by-chance Starbucks 7,000 km away from home, you gotta know no planning is required for us to run into each other again.

*There is no room service in our house. Never has been. Ask our kids. They may still be bitter about this. 

4: Four More and Tug-of-War

This is how I feel when I visit our Swiss bank: As though we are being pushed over a cliff.

From the Government of Canada: 

In some countries, you may have to give your passport to a foreign official or a hotel/hostel employee.

If you don’t get it back in a reasonable time, inform the nearest Government of Canada office abroad.

The question is: What constitutes a reasonable time? At the bank yesterday, my instincts were that a reasonable span would be zero. The bank had called to inform me some material was ready for pick-up. I packed up my and David’s passports and trundled down. I have to show our passports every time I talk to a staffer there since they goofed and rescinded our debit cards – their mistake that resulted in my punishment.

The last time I had made a similar visit to the bank, I was subjected to an interrogation of surprising proportions and it seemed quite possible the bank would shut down my account. This would not be the end of the world, but it would be awkward.

It is an ordinary account that takes payroll, and has a modest withdrawal history, so it is a mystery to me why the bank has taken such a sudden and hostile interest in us.

One Swiss executive suggested the bank might suspect we are Americans, which in this age of multiple-nationalities is a possibility. Switzerland and the U.S. are currently in tension over U.S. tax evaders using Swiss banks to hide their loot. The U.S. wants broad-scale access to private banking information on all U.S. citizens, not just those they suspect of having committed crimes or tax-dodging, and Swiss bankers are reluctantly ceding the battle because if something is more important to them than protecting privacy, it is protecting profits. They are not about to lose the lucrative U.S. market.

Into this morass, we arrived and opened an account. At the time, the bank made it clear it would not do business with Americans. How awkward for U.S. expats, but we are not such, so we shrugged, showed them our Canadian passports and opened an account. The oddity in this is that an internet search shows that the bank has U.S. clients because they have a circular notifying them on the new reporting practices required under the U.S. Foreign Account Compliance Tax Act.

I don’t have a problem with the U.S. making their case to a judge and issuing an international warrant or subpoena or whatever it might be called on a suspect’s account, but if I were an American, right now I’d be really ticked at such a sweeping global privacy invasion, but then I am not an American and this is not a political blog.

So to get back to the bank:  On past visits, I had been classically Canadian, uniformly timid and polite to a point not normally part of my practice when getting messed over by bureaucrats. Still stinging from the bruising of the last interrogation, I decided beforehand to adopt a New York take-no-garbage state-of-mind before entering the bank. If I am being taken for a U.S. citizen, then I might as well act like one.

When I presented our passports to the staff at the front counter and asked for the documents, they unloaded a machine-gun round of questions.

How do you know there are documents here? 

Because you called me, I told them. 

Who called you?

Someone from this bank.

Who ordered the documents?

Well, I did.

Why do you need these documents?

To fix your mistake, that’s why. I was hoping they would ask me to elaborate, but they seemed disinterested in following this track.

What is the name of the bank employee who called you?

The woman caller only identified herself as “This is the bank…”

Was I in a Laurel and Hardy skit? I was holding the passports open on the counter.

One of the counter staffers pinched the passports and tugged. I held on. The second staffer joined in, grasping at one of the passports. I tugged back. A brief and terse conversation followed. They were flummoxed, but I was not about to endure a repeat of the last interrogation, this time with my interrogator holding our passports. The power differential would be too great and I had enough of being treated like a lesser client.

I am a lesser client, though, what with my non-citizen status and lack of significant bags of loot. The ruffled staffers disappeared into the bowels of the bank for what seemed a long time. When they appeared with the envelopes, they instructed me to take them to another desk.

On the last gulag-ish visit, it was when I went to the second desk that a bank manager appeared and gave me the going-over.

“Thanks, no,” I said, and got out of there as fast as I could.

5: A Few Photos

A sign of homesickness: Buying a McDonalds hamburger and taking it back to the hotel to top with fresh tomato, avocado, dijon and a whack of fresh pepper. It’s not as good as our cottage BBQ burgers with real Canadian cheddar (not available here) and sauteed onions, but it will do for a few more days.

This is Switzerland’s “Italian” tarte flambe. This traditional dish is made up of a flatbread (white-flour tortilla) base, topped with thick cream, raw onions, green-stuff, tomatoes, and cured meat. The basic tarte flambe is a tortilla base, cream and raw onions, scorched briefly over a flame.

Over a year in, and I’m still discovering little hidden cobblestone lanes in Biel/Bienne. This one leads to a private courtyard garden.

Wherever you look up in Swiss cities, you will see signs of life. Pockets of rooftop patios and gardens appear all over our town, even atop retail and business buildings.

6: Keeping Tradition Alive or Our Last Visit With the Worst Waitress in the World

The only person I’ve met in 32 years who does not like Dave.

We’ve fallen into a Sheldon Cooper-esque pattern of doing the same thing the same night of every week.

At first we laughed at this The Big Bang Theory sitcom character’s designated hamburger night, pizza night, comic book night, and then we immediately moved to adopt it. There is no explaining this.

And so we now have Lollipop, Hamburger and Cheesecake days (Thursday, Friday and Sunday), while Saturday is reserved for our Wretched Waitress event. At Joran’s, a waterfront restaurant with the best seating to be found in Switzerland’s Mitteland lake district, is succulent beef tenderloin with red pepper sauce, exquisite pasta, fabulous local fish and the best ice cream in Switzerland.

Dave,  about 20 minutes after we had finished eating and were still waiting for the bill.

Balancing out this ‘best of’ list is a woman who may be the worst waitress in the world. We have eaten at enough restaurants in both hemispheres to hazard this assumption.

She refuses to accept our orders in English, French or even the universally accepted restaurant sign language, which is comprised of us pointing to items on the menu.

She growls at us in German, employing tones that remind us less of Hogan’s Heroes and more of those flecked Second World War newsreels.

And then she makes us wait. And wait. And wait. This happens every week, and yet we keep going back. She has become our grumbly Germanic aunt, whose company we enjoy if only because we can rely upon her uniformly dour countenance. She mystifies us.

Last week, she told me ‘no more French, only German.’

Our waitress (white top) flees into the restaurant after I wave her over.

I would like to report that my feeble attempts at German were welcomed with some coaching from her, but instead she glared at me as I dragged out my German vocabulary (five words). And then, because I was flummoxed, I sprayed out Spanish. All my friends who have been subjected to my so-called Spanish can tell you this will only make matters worse.

This week, the mere sight of us caused her to shake her head in disgust. She huffed through a punishing food-ordering spectacle, then proceeded to serve everyone else, even those who came long after us.

Dave taking a nap while waiting for our bill. Will we ever see our wretched waitress again?

While we waited to order our dessert, she engaged in a spirited and joyful conversation with two German ladies seated near us, and then when I waved to get her attention, she spun away and disappeared into the restaurant.

I wish I was exaggerating about this.

Then we waited an interminable time before we finally got up and went inside to pay our bill. She punched our numbers into the cash till, then before giving us the bill turned to pour two glasses of water, then dump them in the sink, then turn and give us the bill. I asked her if she spoke any English at all.

“Nien!” she exclaimed. She had not directly looked at us for over an hour. That is some feat when serving a meal and taking payment.  I tried to say good-bye, to let her know we’re returning to Canada. It seems wrong to not mark the occasion of our last visit by letting her know that her long period of torment is coming to a close.

That was yesterday. It is now Starbucks Sunday, and we are about to make the two-block stroll there for some cheesecake, which the staff say is specially shipped in from Pennsylvania. That is a good thing. We need a little of that good’ol American home-taste to wash away the emotional wreckage left over from Wretched Waitress day.

For those wondering why we kept going back there: In Swiss restaurants, you can get great service often, mediocre service occasionally and  bad service rarely, but service that falls within the “hostile” category is something to behold. That, and the fabulous ice cream is why we keep going back.

If you go: Skip the tarte flambe’ and order a simple ham, salami and cheese sandwich which is served on thick slabs of fresh-baked bread.

The chocolate, pistachio and banana ice cream flavors are exceptional and often served on a bed of sliced bananas or crushed pistachios. For supper, you cannot go wrong with the beef tenderloin, which the Swiss boast is pasture-fed and antibiotic/chemical-free. The restaurant specializes in fresh local strawberries, ice cream and cream desserts, but that is recommended only when the season peaks, usually in early-to-mid June.

Do not fear the wait-staff. But for this one waitress, the rest speak at least some English, are very friendly and competent. 

7: Snarl

A dog snoozes at his owner’s feet, happy inside a Starbucks restaurant.

A dog attacked me on my morning jog yesterday. It was leashed to a young woman who only laughed as her snarly snapping border collie made a go for my shins.  I say “only” because she showed no reflexive movement to her dog’s lunging at me. A little jerk of the leash would have been nice, but that did not occur.

That is about what I expected.  My experience of dog-owners, particularly owners of aggressive dogs, is that they are clueless about their beloved Bowser’s behavior, because they are at the tail-end of the leash. The view is different from the other side, the one with fangs.

This brought to mind my hometown Victoria, British Columbia, where tightened leash laws came into force this week, a move that I doubt will do much except produce a more stressed dog population.

I loathe it when North Americans shore up weak arguments with “that is how they do it in Sweden” defenses – a lazy myopic debating tool if ever there was one, mostly because people using that device are operating with a scant understanding of how Sweden or any faraway land really works. But here I am about to dive in with a “this is how they do it in Switzerland argument” against tighter leash laws. My only defense is that I live in Switzerland.

Over the past year, we have seen countless unleashed dogs of all breeds trot past us with nary a glance in our direction. Un-neutered males frolic in parks, beagles bumber about inside housing goods shops as their owners browse, retrievers relax under restaurant tables and  train-riding chows tolerate total strangers stepping over them. Unleashed dogs walk at a perfect heel on busy streets and in packed parks. A dog is a dog the world over, so the difference has to be something to do with the Swiss.

I had previously believed Swiss dogs’ docile natures was a product of their socialization – that is, that they are allowed nearly everywhere: Trains, buses, stores (some restrictions apply inside grocery stores), malls, wherever there are people, there are dogs. I assumed this to be the driving civilizing effect on canines and very likely this is the case. But there is more to it.

Switzerland is swathed in bureaucracy. For example, no one is allowed on a golf course until they have been certified. It seems a bit far-fetched but there it is.

The same thinking applies to dog-ownership. Switzerland demands that dog-owners become certified before they actually own a dog, and certification does not mean just paying a fee and getting a piece of paper; it means taking a course in dog-training. After successfully completing the course, the person then gets the dog and later goes back for further training and certification.

Fifteen months ago, learning this would have made me roll my eyes and groan at an all-reaching bureaucracy, but now it seems like a very good idea. It elevates the general base of knowledge of all dog-owners. The result is a very polite pooch population.

A leash law would not have done anything to protect me from yesterday’s dog-attack. The problem was not with the dog on the leash, but with the obtuse woman holding the other end of it.

8: The Fate of Literature

Good-bye little books. See you sometime this summer, way across the ocean.

For months we have agonized over what to do with the little Swiss library we have amassed. Our dedication to this matter is all out of proportion to its long-ranging consequences.

We could leave Alice, Tom and Irene (Munro, Boyle and Nemirovsky) here in our hotel library and they would live quiet purposeful lives entertaining the hotel’s English-reading guests for years to come. That is the altruistic thing to do, but we have not done it.

Our attachment to our books is inexplicable even to us, and so while we have whittled away at the lesser authors – who shall remain nameless just in case we should ever meet – Alice, Tom, Irene and the rest of our favored tribe are at this moment heading for Canada via Swiss Post’s slow-boat system. We love our books, but we’re still careful financial managers so they travel economy class, the same as us.

The cost is only 58 Swiss Francs – quite a bit less than the courier bill that was estimated at almost 500 Francs (although that included our full pre-pared-down library so it is not an apples-to-oranges measure). And sadly, if Swiss Post cannot find our little cottage in Ontario, the destination for the books, we left instructions to treat them as ‘abandoned.’ Even checking that box on the Swiss Post export form depressed me a little bit.

Why is it so hard to part with books?

 

10: Our Last Double-Digit Day

Schlossmuseum in Nidau

After today, we fall into the single-digit portion of our Countdown to Canada, leading me to go into a little bit of a souvenir panic. Our conundrum is this: We want to bring something back that is distinctly Swiss, however, this desire competes with our goal to pack as lightly as possible. We have found a pair of old wooden cross-country skis at a nearby second-hand shop. They were made in Nidau – a town just beyond the train tracks. The skis have been a subject of discussion since we saw them (I’ve written about them already – click here to see it), and we visit them often. At one point, they disappeared from the shop and Dave breathed a sigh of relief that the question had been resolved for us, but then we found them stuffed away in a corner.

There are multiple problems with shipping the skis, beginning with the requirement that if they go on the flight with us, they must be packed in a molded-shell ski case. Of course, molded ski cases are modern devices made for modern skis. These skis are ancient and very long. They are also very heavy, so mailing them could cost upwards of 500 Swiss Francs (CHF)*. Our frugal natures flinch at such an extravagance. And this potential 500 CHF tab is before Switzerland’s export office opens the package and sees we are trying to make off with some of Switzerland’s precious lumber, albeit very old lumber.

So we seesaw endlessly over the question. In the meantime, I’m going to visit the skis again and see if the shopkeeper speaks enough English to field a question about overseas shipping.

Note: I know 500 CHF sounds like an over-estimate, but when I looked into shipping back a double-shoebox-sized package of books, the estimate came in around 450 CHF. I cannot even breathe when I contemplate the cost for a pair of skis. 

Later in the day addendum: I visited our beloved cross-country skis for the last time this afternoon. After the usual awkward Anglo/German/French conversation, the shopkeeper said she did not provide shipping services. It’s buy it, take it and trust your luck to getting it home.  

For those who know something of my command of  German, the German portion of our conversation was me saying “gruetz” or something like that. It’s all I’ve got.

11: Plane Panic

See how this Swiss snail clings to the surface? That is me and mother earth. I do not like to leave the ground.

I hate flying. I always have. I am practically positive that should I loosen my grip on my airplane seat’s armrests, the entire craft will plunge down. Only my willpower and perpetual prayers keep that giant hunk of metal aloft. My brain does not think this. Just the rest of my body does. This makes short-haul travel a wonderful workout in isometrics, but overseas flights one big anxiety-washed muscle spasm.

There have been times in my life where we flew so often that my plane panic was forced to go from acute to chronic, which meant I was always in a moderately elevated adrenalin state, whether in flight or just anticipating one.

The air, way up there, gives me a scare.

When we took this overseas job, I blithely told our kids we’d fly back often for Christmas, Easter, maybe even Thanksgiving. I had blacked out my air-terror, which is why I was able to say this and think it was true. Once on the other side of the ocean, the prospect of multiple trans-Atlantic flights weighed me down to earth, literally. I contemplated taking an ocean liner ride home, but then came a few Italian/Greek ferry disasters, and the media blitz marking the 100-year-anniversary of the Titanic sinking.

But that is all about me, and where I will be in 11 days, clinging to a plane seat, counting the rows to the nearest exit,* checking the life jacket underneath – which, by the way, I really do check these things, and note to Air Canada: All of your inflatable life vests are past their expiry dates. Please do something about this.

* Two Real Crash Survival Tips You Might Not Know:

  1. When you take your seat, count the number of rows between you and the nearest exit, and make a mental tour of such a trip. If you do survive a crash, the compartment will be full of smoke and you will have to crawl down the aisle, should there still be an aisle, clutching and counting chair-legs as you go to find the exit. I’ve interviewed crash experts who described how people have died in plane crashes not because of the crash, but because they made some very human, but very fatal choices. One of those was to try to exit the plane the same way they had come in. This is a natural behavior and one that kicks into auto-pilot in a crisis. We do what we know, so if we know the way in was to our left side of the plane, we are more likely to head back along that route, even if that side is a crumpled mess. People have died in planes trying to get out of one side, while there was an open door within spitting distance to the other side. Yes, I think of these things.
  2. Don’t sit up straight and do not stand up. If the airplane is afire anywhere, the air atop is full of toxic fumes that can kill you immediately on the first breath. Crawl your way out.
  3. This sounds stupid, but when you take your plane seat, latch and unlatch your seatbelt several times and fix that motion in your mind. People have a lifetime of experience with push button seatbelt closures in their cars, but airplane seatbelt latches are the pull and release type. In a moment of panic, people try to do what they’ve done many times, which is the car-seatbelt release. Many who perish in plane crashes are found still strapped in their seats. If you think doing a repeat latch and unlatch exercise is silly, consider that emergency services personnel, police and military use repetitive exercises to make a maneuver into second-nature. There’s a reason it’s called second-nature. It’s because your first nature is to mess things up.
Here’s some fun links about air travel and safety.

Real Advice for Real Air Travellers

Wake up and find out your plane is missing? 

Dress for Disaster and Other Air Scare Survivor Tactics

12: Swiss Parenting Style

The scene where moments earlier, we almost participated in a group heart attack.

I raised a boy who has dislocated two joints, did an axe-head split on his elbow joint, sheared bones straight across, used an incisor as a landing device when pitched from his skateboard, received his first set of stitches at around a year old and enjoyed the experience and so kept getting more. If this isn’t a training program in how self-destructive kids can be, I don’t know what is.

Hence, my perpetual terror on the streets of Switzerland where Swiss children cavort inches from speeding traffic and blocks away from their parents. I exaggerate not a bit. We checked this out with our local Swiss friend who confirmed that the Swiss are accustomed to the notion that nothing really bad can happen here, and people are good everywhere, and so why not let a two-year-old wander a city street 40 metres from his parents?

My mother, the mother of all catastrophizers, taught me that a pre-schooler should always be within grabbing reach, because grabbing will be required. This is especially true for children who have not yet reached the age of understanding that they can die or be maimed beyond repair. In the case of my son described in the first paragraph, that age was somewhere around 28. I had no idea it was going to be such a long haul, otherwise, I would have paced myself with more care.

But I drift.

Even these swans know to keep their young within grabbing reach.

As Dave and I stood on a bridge admiring Switzerland’s swans and other waterfowl, we heard a woman shouting. To our left, a woman of about 55-65 years of age was racing toward the steep canal banks, hand stretched out to grab at something. No. Not something, but someone. As my mother would have noted immediately, she had fallen into the folly of letting a child escape the grab-zone. About 10 metres ahead of her was a boy of roughly two years of age. He was a picture of delight as he raced on chubby little legs straight for the canal edge where a direct drop into a concrete slope followed by a bounce into murky water waited for him.

The woman clearly was not going to close the gap. She was pushing an empty stroller as she ran, but as the boy neared the edge with no sign of braking, she abandoned the stroller and proceeded to run in that posture that suggests if she had wings, now is when she would spring into the air.

I was still doing the metrics on the likelihood anyone could intervene, but Dave, a man of action, was already running down the bridge and shouting. It was just enough to startle the boy into stopping, which is about what my  heart was doing at that moment. There was no question that had the boy taken a few more steps, not Dave or the grandmother would have been close enough to do anything about it.

The drop was not terribly deep, but one cranial bang on that concrete would be enough. Dave was prepared to go into the water after the boy, but having retrieved a sinking head-heavy toddler once myself, I know how quickly they plunge, and in fast-moving water that murky, it would be only a prayer that would ensure Dave would find the boy.

But that did not happen.

The grandmother scooped up the boy who was still very happy. It was all good for him, he had a good run and was the centre of attention. We hoped the grandmother, who looked otherwise like a very normal and intelligent woman, had absorbed the grab-zone rule of child-minding.

It brought to mind that old 1960s motto about never trusting someone over 30. Just drop the zero and that number would be just about right.

 

13: Winnipeg Wherever

Winnipeg at its finest. Photo Allan Lorde, from a defunct website.

Winnipeg. We hear its name many times on our travels, because wherever we go, Winnipeg will appear, in one form or another.  We cannot explain this.

Yesterday, on the ride up a small funicular rail car in our inconsequential Swiss town, a tall Dane seated next to me asked where we were from? Canada, we said. It’s the best answer. We’re both born and raised Winnipeggers, but we’ve moved around a bit and “home” for most of our married life has been on Vancouver Island off Canada’s rock-rimmed, rained-drenched West Coast.

“Have you been to Canada?” we asked him.

“I’ve been to Winnipeg,” he replied. We expected to hear Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, but we are starting to realize we should expect Winnipeg. The man talked about Winnipeg’s beautiful women who are fabulous cooks, while he looked down at me, a somewhat shopworn never-gorgeous woman with a questionable culinary record. I suppose he was doubting my origins.

As a reporter, I could practically peg a Winnipegger within seconds of meeting, no matter where we were or what the interview subject would be. They always said they could spot me, too.

When a young woman with a wide grin approached our writers table in a Bern Starbucks, I figured her for a Winnipegger by her fun eye-rolling ‘we’re all in this together,’ ‘hiyah ol’ buddy ol’ pal,’ demeanor. She also carried that forehead-wrung visage of someone who has navigated ‘crazy corner.’ If you know what this means, you just might be from Winnipeg.

Run into a Dane who enlisted with the German army and was stationed in Winnipeg, while we were riding with 20 people in a small rail car up the Jura Mountains in a tiny Swiss town of 70,000? Of course we would.

This is how Winnipeggers look at life – as a giant joke God is playing on them that is so rich even they laugh at it because after all, if anyone can write a good punchline, it has to be God. Winnipeggers want to let you in on the joke, too. They’ve made it through winters that make Siberia look like a beach resort. Their summers are spent dodging blood-sucking insects. Every spring, Fargo sends them a giant swell of floodwaters. Winnipeg’s city engineers love this and look on it as a grand-scale paintball game they play with the Americans.

What this adds up to is that any time Winnipeggers are away from Winnipeg, they bubble over with joy.  That jubilance makes it easy to pick them out of a crowd. And yet  when they are away from Winnipeg, they cannot wait to get back. It might have something to do with Stella’s Cafe and Baked Expectations.

Our hotel manager almost moved to Winnipeg; countless strangers we’ve met on rail platforms are from Winnipeg; Dave’s met two people at work who are from Winnipeg; in an Atlanta fitness centre a woman on the treadmill next to me was just back from a winter vacation in Winnipeg. She loved it. The list goes on and on.

Winnipeg. Wherever you go, it is right there with you.

14: Swiss Sunshine & A Hike Through the Jura Mountains

BIEL Alstadt: The sun is out in Switzerland again after a very cool and wet spring.

The sun is out in Switzerland again, so we rode the funicular up the Jura Mountain slopes and hiked down. The Juras are mere bumps in the landscape compared to the Alps, but it is still exciting to get lost in them, which we did a few times owing to the pecularities of Swiss signage. Apparently, all roads lead to Biel, but the question on our minds was: Which one will get us there sooner and with less chances of ankle-breaks?

If you go: The funicular (rail-car that rides up the slopes) runs every 20 minutes. It has two compartments for bikes (appears able to hoist about 10-15 per ride). Priced at 5.40 CHF (Swiss Francs) per person. Half-price SwissRail cards for residents apply (2.70). Go from Biel to Magglingen to access the mountain bike trails. For more info, click here. 

The trail  is very steep for the first 50 m, and has a few hairpin turns that create ideal blind spots for careening cyclists to flatten hikers. Fortunately, the trail levels and straightens a little after that, making it safe-sharing for hikers and bikers. It took us about 90 minutes to walk from Magglingen back down to Biel. Keep your ears open for cyclists, even on the scarier parts of the trail. We were heading down a narrow concrete stepped embankment when we heard the thwack sound of bike tires bumping down the pavement behind us  – yes, a mountain biker in the most unlikely of places. How like the Swiss. They are a sturdy bunch.

Okay, most roads lead to Biel/Bienne.

For mountain biking types who want to know here the trail-head is: Exit the funicular and go  left. Adjacent to the funicular station (on your left again) is a driveway that drops down to a parking lot. Go down the driveway (about 15-20 metres, maybe less) and you will see yellow signs (again, on  your left) marking the trail before the parking lot.

If  you go past a gated road you have gone too far. Turn back to the funicular station.

Take extreme care. The first portion of the trail is very steep with a deep hairpin turn, although we did see a cyclist whip down it without injury, so maybe I overestimate the trail’s treachery. The rest of the trail does not look so frightening.

Statsurday

  • Most hits on HoboNotes from: Canada, U.S. and Switzerland.
  • Least hits: Spain, Costa Rica and Ireland
  • Readers from Japan: Three!
  • Top Post for the Last 30 Days: Paris food – can you eat lamb’s kidney without having to sell your own?
  • Top Post for the Week: Strolling with the Smokers
  • Fun search term that brought a reader to this site: My tooth is breaking into pieces, which is exactly what happened the first week we arrived here in 2011.
  • Second most fun search term: Loons that attack people This suggests that I am not the only one to fall victim to this musical but menacing (on at least two occasions) carnivorous waterfowl.

This part of the trail was not so bad, but it is still steeper than it looks. We saw a salamander and a deer while on our walk. I went to whip out my camera to photo the deer, then remembered we see deer almost everyday back at home in Canada. Later, I had regrets. It was the first Swiss deer we’ve seen.

The view looking back from our table at a Joral’s waterfront restaurant. That white dot you see near the top of the mountain is the start-spot for our hike.

10: Our Last Double-Digit Day

You don’t expect Switzerland to have a summer-resort aspect to it, but it does. We could bring a box of sand back as a souvenir instead of skis, but then no one would really believe it was from Switzerland, the land of snowy alps.

After today, we fall into the single-digit portion of our Countdown to Canada, leading me to go into a little bit of a souvenir panic. Our conundrum is this: We want to bring something back that is distinctly Swiss, however, this desire competes with our goal to pack as lightly as possible. We have found a pair of old wooden cross-country skis at a nearby second-hand shop. They were made in Nidau – a town just beyond the train tracks. The skis have been a subject of discussion since we saw them (I’ve written about them already – click here to see it), and we visit them often. At one point, they disappeared from the shop and Dave breathed a sigh of relief that the question had been resolved for us, but then we found them stuffed away in a corner.

There are multiple problems with shipping the skis, beginning with the requirement that if they go on the flight with us, they must be packed in a molded-shell ski case. Of course, molded ski cases are modern devices made for modern skis. These skis are ancient and very long. They are also very heavy, so mailing them could cost upwards of 500 Swiss Francs (CHF)*. Our frugal natures flinch at such an extravagance. And this potential 500 CHF tab is before Switzerland’s export office opens the package and sees we are trying to make off with some of Switzerland’s precious lumber, albeit very old lumber.

So we seesaw endlessly over the question. In the meantime, I’m going to visit the skis again and see if the shopkeeper speaks enough English to field a question about overseas shipping.

Note: I know 500 CHF sounds like an over-estimate, but when I looked into shipping back a double-shoebox-sized package of books, the estimate came in around 450 CHF. I cannot even breathe when I contemplate the cost for a pair of skis. 

15: Cherries On Top

Biel/Bienne cherries. Mmm good.

The fruit in our Swiss town’s shops has taken a decided downturn. Earlier this week, the strawberries were flecked with fruit flies and the raspberry display did not have the same oomph it showed earlier in the season.

Blame spring. On our town’s main market street is a 60-something woman with a van, a table and two flats of cherries selling for 11 Francs a kilo. She doesn’t even have any glaring signs to attract buyers; only two small handwritten cards posting the price and that the cherries are from our town. Granted, her penmanship is exquisite, but I don’t think that is what’s tilted the produce market in her favor.

It’s the cherries – plump enough to rival those grown in Washington State, and so flavorful that one can almost taste the leafy trees off which they grow.

I’ve lived in some great produce regions in my life. Who would have thought Switzerland would turn out to be one of them?

16: The Principal’s Office for Grown-Ups

I suspect all gargoyles were modeled after people stuck in immigration waiting rooms.

Yesterday, we went to the police office to process some exit paperwork. I opened the door to the sleek glass and grey office and was met with a powerful smell. It was the aroma of fear. For the first time since we came here, the waiting room was packed. Only minutes after I arrived, people were lining up outside the door.

I was the only natural blond in the room, a racist remark I suppose but in these days when in an immigration room full of Arab types, one does get a little nervous and when I noticed two angry-looking men at opposite ends of the room signalling to each other, I eyed their jackets closely for signs of bomb-vests. No paranoia here, just a well-informed person who watches world news and shudders.

Bureaucracy is a bear.

As it turns out, they were signalling about me. I moved to a seat next to one and struck up a conversation. It is the reporter’s way of dealing with fear: Just start talking to the suspicious-looking person and see where that goes. Also, it put me closer to the exit.

The man said he only spoke German, but he was a quick study because when I prattled on, he suddenly spoke pretty good English. I have this gift that whoever I talk to magically acquires fluency in English, even as they deny it. I cannot explain this.

He lost most of his furious look when I asked him if I was in line behind him – I knew already that I was, but I suspected that with no formal line-up structure, the waiting room ‘clients’ were fearful of someone cutting in front of them. Nowhere is line-cutting more fraught with peril than in an immigration office full of people fleeing unstable countries. With the line-up firmly established and agreed upon, the two men relaxed a little, but not too much. They still had a meeting with stern bureaucrats in front of them.

Later, Dave and I went out and spent too much money on a steak dinner, just to calm our nerves. We’re not fleeing an oppressive government, but the atmosphere still rattles us.

The fun wasn’t over for me yet. Today I visited the bank on what was a mere administrative matter correcting a goof they made this month, but that turned into an impromptu interrogation.

Were I in Canada, I would have not answered any questions, demanded to know why they were so snoopy and reminded them that the error was theirs, not mine. But I am not in Canada. I have less status here than babies riding in strollers. So, I smiled, nodded, and got out of there as fast as I could, headed to the Lollipop store to load up on Jelly Bellys.

Switzerland is still a lovely country, but it doesn’t matter where you are when you’re a foreigner. You are still subject to the terrors of immigration and bank offices, which are the adult equivalent of a school principal’s office, circa 1960s, complete with leather straps.

___________________________________________

It is only fair to add that the cantonal bureaucrat we usually deal with on these visits is the nicest person, very helpful and soothing. It is also only fair to add that one of her colleagues strikes fear in our hearts.

 

17: Pick a Language, Any Language.

BERN   This rooftop garden in Bern is a good representation of my linguistic life – I can see the German/French/Italian-speakers and they can see me. We can even reach between the bars a little bit, but we cannot cross over completely. There is, however, a passageway, but that would be the language lessons I did not take. My bad.

Yesterday, I asked our Italian maid in Spanish how to say “towels” in French. She didn’t even blink at my Spanish. This makes perfect sense.

In other language news, I am reminded of the fact that we all have our own accents. Mine wanders from French-Canadian, Prairie-Canadian, Slavic and American Deep South (Virginian to one of the Carolinas, I’ve been told, although we lived in Georgia).  It is possible there is a touch of a Spanish accent in there, but more likely that only shows up when I am rolling my ‘r’s.

MURTEN   I can’t speak with the locals much, but I can still enjoy the view. This is overlooking Lake Murten from the village of Murten/Morat.

The reminder of dialects and accents came when I visited at a park with an Indian friend of mine. She has an Indian accent, but now I realize that to her ears, I have a pretty thick accent, too. With us was her sister-in-law visiting from India. She speaks perfect English, but she needed my friend (her sister-in-law) to translate half of what I was saying. I don’t only live in a proverbial tower of Babel; I am a tower of Babel.

Despite this, I am only fluent in one language. I have the curse of multilingualism without any of the benefits.

BIEL    It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, harbors full of sailboats are always pretty.

18: The Lists

Switzerland has reawakened my love of shutters. They are everywhere, they are beautiful. I want some.

I have a friend who loves lists. I find it freaky, because I thought I was the only list-amaniac on the planet. Now I know there are more listers out there, probably all walking at an awkward angle (listing to the right or left).

My listing-friend blogged her 2011 year-in-review lists, which made me laugh until my eyes watered. I won’t say that I laughed until I cried, because I have four brothers and if they sense weakness in me, they will go in for the kill.

I have so many lists, the favorite one being: What cottage projects should we do this summer? At this point, many men will recognize that last sentence was in code. It really means: What cottage projects should he do this summer?

Switzerland’s House of Parliament, centre of government in Bern.

He, being my hubby Dave, does not like this list.

I also have lists of things I want to do – he does not like this list either because it includes interior house-painting projects. I am only five-feet tall, so Dave knows this means he will come home one day to find that I have painted any number of rooms, but only up to my highest reaching point. He is on the hook for all painting projects above the 6.5-foot mark.

I’m thinking of this because today I announced that after eight years of owning our latest house, I just last week figured out what colour I want to paint the bathroom. Dave knows this means he is going to be painting the top 2-3 feet of  wall space. I don’ t know why this bothers him. After all, I do the larger part (if he got to write in this blog, this is where he would point out that I sometimes leave the trim and fiddly painting parts for him to do) (good thing he doesn’t have the password to this blog).

But enough about that.

In the spirit of listing, here’s a list of things I like best about Switzerland.

  1. Chocolate: Lots and lots of chocolate.
  2. Medieval towns: Somehow medieval towns do not seem to have been bombed out in either of the world wars. I could be wrong about this, but if I’m right, it shows that even in war, there is a civil regard for architectural beauty. On the other hand, there are many signs of re-construction, so I probably am wrong.
  3. Restaurants in parks: For some reason, Victoria, the city where we live most of the time, equates eateries in parks with fecal/nuclear/toxic environmental contamination. People who hold those views should visit Europe, which has perfected the eating-in-the-parking experience into the sublime. A dining establishment or ice cream stand does not represent the end of the world as we know it.
  4. Canals: Instead of stormwater drain systems, the Swiss have open canals, fenced in charming wrought-iron, filled with swans, ducks and other waterfowl and lined with trees. I cannot think of a single reason Canadian cities don’t follow suit (hello, Ottawa). Think of the fun ice-skating trails winding through the cities this would create (hello Winnipeg).
  5. The Swiss: Switzerland’s jerk-to-nice-person ratio is about one jerk for every 150 nice people. That is a stunningly good ratio.

Something else I don’t like about Switzerland/Europe:   A lax attitude toward refrigerated meats and eggs, not to mention warmer dairy cases than would ever pass muster in North America. I know the meats in this photo are cured, but that is not enough for me.

Here is a list of things I like least about Switzerland.

  1. Chocolate: There’s entirely too much of it, and it is everywhere. How am I supposed to get into a bathing suit this summer when chocolates can be found in the meat, produce, dairy, bakery, pharmacy, cookie  and beverage aisles, not to mention at aisle-ends and check-outs.  Even after I go past the check-out at our closest grocery store (which is in the basement of a downtown building), at the top of the escalator is – what else but another kiosk of Lindt chocolate.
  2. Medieval town maps: Medieval towns seem to predate the concept of grid-based urban planning, so the roadways go along in charming little forest-path patterns, which is absolutely wonderful for photography, but not so great when trying to find one’s way through what is effectively a cobblestone maze. I wish the maps were better, as well as the street signs.
  3. Restaurants: Restaurants here are pricey. How pricey? A colleague of Dave’s recently spent two weeks in London, returning to Switzerland to declare London restaurants very cheap. Seriously? Who else emerges from a London eatery calling it a bargain but someone acclimatized to the high cost of dining out in Switzerland? That’s how expensive Swiss restaurants are.
  4. Canal litter: As a former parks commissioner, I know there is no amount of structural design that will completely thwart ne’er-do-wells, but I think Switzerland could raise its canal fences from about 3.5 feet to a higher level to reduce stolen-bicycle-littering (yes, this is where missing bikes show up). It also would keep kids from leaping over the rail, although no Swiss child would do that. They are born sensible.
  5. The Swiss: I love the Swiss, I do, but I am suspicious that their tolerance for prostitution, narcotics and public drunkenness stretches a tad too far.

19: Why Do We Care About Ducklings?

Why do we care about ducklings? There are so many of them. And yet, we still care.

“He is already dead,” the waiter said as I twisted my key in the mailbox. I had stepped out our hotel’s side door where the staff take their smoke breaks.

“Who?”

“Him.” The waiter pointed at a still mound of yellow and umber down. A duckling lay on his back on the asphalt, his torso twisted, his head flung back so his thumbnail-sized bill pointed upwards, exposing a yellow plume at his throat. A handful of ducklings scattered over the walkway, their cheeps punctuating the street sounds. The waiter explained he heard a loud bang and then saw the dead duckling roll off a van parked by the hotel. We were on the Suze River canal walkway where service vehicles sometimes park. The canal had 15-foot deep walls. The ducklings could not have come from the Suze. With the recent rainstorms, the canal water rushed too fiercely for any duck to get lift from it, much less featherless ducklings.

The waiter reached a latex-gloved hand over the van and drew back with a live duckling. We looked up. Would a duck have nested at the top of a five-story building? It didn’t seem possible.

But then, why not? They have wings. About 20 feet away a stout woman pointed us toward the mother duck calling for her young.

Another waiter appeared, the father of a newborn boy. He looked down at the dead duckling and echoed the first waiter.

“He is already dead. It is nature,” he said with a shrug, but then he and the other waiter in their starched white and black uniforms circled the van to shepherd the ducklings toward their mother.

When all her babies were gathered around her, the mother duck stood quacking for a moment more, as though she knew one was still missing. Do mother ducks know how to count out their babies?

She turned and hopped the low stone pedestal that rims the canal; her babies clambered at the ledge to join her, but for them it was too great a height. She slipped through the wrought-iron railing and readied to leap the 15 feet down into the churning green water, but then realized her babies were not at her belly. She threaded back between the bars, but she did not come down from the ledge to join her young.

Instead, she waddled east toward the lake, while her babies followed, fretting against the stone, keening pitiably to join her. The lake was still a mile and many busy crossroads away. Her path would take her fledglings through the thick of the city.

A small audience formed in the apartment balconies above the canal.

Under their watch, I followed the family and I wondered, why do we care so much about ducklings? The restaurant where the waiters work serves duck.

The mother duck was nearing the street when she seemed to reach a point of decision. Here, the stone pedestal sloped downward, so a few of her ducklings were able to make the leap and cluster around her belly. She slipped under the fence onto the edge and dropped down into the hurrying water.

Some of her babies trusting their mother, tumbled over the wall with her.

The remaining ducklings threw themselves against the stone and quickened their cries. The current forced the mother duck and her babies downriver, but they fought their way back up to where the crying babies scrambled at the ledge.

The balcony audience shouted and made sweeping motions with their hands, indicating I should send the babies over the edge. As I bent down, one duckling cleared the stone and with little featherless wings outspread, fell down into the water.

I gently cupped the last duckling in my hands, lifted him onto the pedestal, but he would not jump. I nudged him closer to the edge, but he only bleated louder and struggled back into my hands. I pushed him over then, feeling sick as I did it. Below, the ducklings swirled around their mother. They were all together.

I turned around and said, “C’est bien, tout c’est bien.” Everyone raised their hands and shouted in joy. For them it was over, but when I turned back I saw one duckling carried away by the current, her mother hurrying to catch her, but forced to circle back to gather her brood who could not keep up. The separated one bleated, her little dark wings outspread, facing her mother, as the water pulled her backwards tail-first and farther away.

It seemed for a moment as though the mother and her brood would close the gap, but then two merganzers appeared and pecked at her babies, teasing them away from her in the swirling water. She could by herself catch the duckling being carried away, but she would have to abandon the rest to the hungry merganzers. She gave up the one and circled back to fight the merganzers, with her babies frantically working against the current to stay inside her protective reach.

The merganzers gave up, the mother was too fierce, but by that time the little duckling had been carried out of sight, although we could still hear her bleating, but soon, even that was drowned out by the city noise.

 

20: Strolling with the Smokers

We spent Saturday strolling around Biel, Bern and Murten with visiting Canadians Gord and Sandi Smoker, who have woven their way up from Israel, Turkey and who knows where else to spend some time in Switzerland.

For almost 12 hours, we got to speak English without thinking a moment about cultural nuances, or our listeners’ comprehension. It is just possible we talked their ears off. This morning, my jaw hurts and as I write this they are fleeing Switzerland on a train, headed for Frankfurt and then home to Vancouver Island. We don’t blame them.

The Smokers made Switzerland all the more fun – Gord provides a non-stop comedic patter that made Sandi groan and us laugh. We got the best restaurant service we’ve ever had here, which may be because Gord charmed the waiters, in particular in one Italian/German/English exchange where he told the waiter that 15% was a normal tip in Canada at which the waiter exclaimed “50 per cent??!!” We imagine he is somewhere right now filling out Canadian visa application forms.

A typical Bern picture of the town clock tower. 

 

A not-so-typical Bern photo. What goes on in this city’s underbelly?

We don’t know what this is, but it was in one of the Bern basements we glimpsed in at off Marktgasse (Market Street).

 

Bern’s basement boutiques include barber shops and fancy clothing stores.

 

This cellar door is named for the genius who worked in the patent office above it from 1902 to 1909. For some reason, an online biography says this office is located at Speichergasse and the Genfergasse, while the street we found it on was Marktgasse. It is possible the street was renamed, but we have no way of knowing for sure.

 

21: Welfare + free bikes = $63 cheese sandwich

Free bikes!

It’s bike-riding season in Switzerland, so I’m reprinting our June 2011 experience with SuisseRoule, Switzerland’s free bike program available at several cities across the country.

In Switzerland, bikes can be rented at many train stations for about 50 Swiss Francs a day. For the free-bike program, you will need to show some picture identification, and pay a refundable 20 Franc deposit. If your ride goes over the 4-hour maximum, your deposit will go against the hourly rental fee but even this is usually cheaper than an all-day rental.

There are six free-bike sites, but about a gazillion pay-rental bike sites.

Click here for information about the pay-rentals. 

Click here for information about the free bikes. 

(you may need to use an online translator to read these pages)

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There is no free lunch in Switzerland, but there are free bikes.

You can rent bikes for 25 to 50 Swiss Francs a day from many train stations across Switzerland, or you can get a bike for free through Suisseroule, a loaner program.

Why anyone would pay to rent a bike when there are perfectly good free ones? Because the free-bike kiosks are harder to find, that’s why. This is how Switzerland protects its bike rental market.

We would never have known about loaner bikes, except that a Swiss co-worker of Dave’s gave him a few brochures and some advice on trails, adding to the evidence that every Swiss citizen studies tourism as a requirement for graduation.

Free bikes sounded too good to be true. Then we discovered that the free-bike stations are staffed with welfare recipients.

Sabrina, our friendly free-bike-loaner agent. She looks normal.

The Swiss will not tolerate slackers in any form, as we learned when their tax officers discovered an unemployed person within their borders, that is, me, upon whom they have set their sights, first by trying to make me fill out a French/German multiple choice form that did not include “unemployed” or “retired” among the options. We are not sure that the Swiss even have a word for someone like me.

So if I, a foreigner, cannot escape notice, there is no way a Swiss-national is getting off easy, and so welfare recipients have jobs, too. We are not sure if this means they are still welfare recipients, or government employees. I will let you argue over the difference.

In addition to the welfare recipient staffers (which, it turns out, is true), we heard a rumour that ex-cons and parolees also staff these places  To borrow a bike, would we have to give up our residency cards, which could then hit the seamy underworld market for  few hours and be returned to us with exciting new criminal records attached? Note: Could not find any reliable information on the ex-con/parolee rumour. Probably not true. 

We were nervous about this, but what could we do? We are cheap and the bikes were free.

In Neuchatel, we found a friendly young woman seated in the trailer next to the bike racks. She did not look likely to sell our residency cards on the black market. She lacked the bureacracy-tortured visage of Canada’s welfare populace and if she had a criminal bent, we could not discern it.

You see some crazy stuff riding along Swiss bike trails.

We were relieved to discover that we would only have to show our  identification and leave a 25-franc deposit per bike. The bikes are free for the first four hours after which the brochure said we would be charged a franc an hour, but the woman said the hourly  charge would be five francs.

We did not know what to make of this disparity, but neither did we care because if we were on the bikes for longer than four hours, we would probably be near death anyway.

The bikes are replaced every year, well-maintained, light and comfortable. Again, we were in awe of how well the Swiss do these things.

As we rode along the beautiful shores of Lac Neuchatel, we exclaimed over what seemed to be our cheapest travel-day in Switzerland. That was until we stopped for lunch at what may have been a yacht club for Swiss bankers.

Among the 32-45-franc meals, we saw what appeared to be a 22-franc cheese fondue lunch for two. Perfect. We ordered the fondue, which featured the famous local Corgemont cheese, which when served cold has a strong aroma and aftertaste, but when melted down in a fondue is absolutely sublime.

A deconstructed $63 grilled cheese sandwich, also known as cheese fondue.

We ate until we fell into a stupor, which was a good thing, because it turned out we were wrong about the price. It was 22-francs a person on a two-person minimum, and so with our bottled water (eight francs) and coffees, our “cheap”  lunch came to 63 francs.

We laughed about this. Remember, we were in a cheese stupor. Then, realized we had eaten bread cubes and melted cheese – that’s basically like a deconstructed grilled cheese sandwich.

It turns out the Swiss know what they’re doing when they offer free bikes. They know pedaling will make us hungry and that here, there is no free lunch.

To learn more about Switzerland’s free bike program, click here. 

This link should take you to a Google-translated Suisseroule website, but if it does not, search for  Suisseroule, then click on “translate page.”

22: Corral Your Corporate Crew

Life overseas can be a bear for a migrant worker, blue collar, white collar or otherwise.

Some have asked how this week’s banking fiasco panned out. The answer is that our results were mixed, but more importantly, here is a real tip for foreigners who run into trouble.

Get your employer involved.

We turned to our company’s human resources department to deal with the bank. This is an advisable route for problems with any foreign service-provider be it the post office, the bank, the landlord, you name it.

This is not the entrance to our bank, but some days we feel like it is.

Here is why: You are but passing through their country. You are a visitor; they know you will not be around forever, therefore they lack a sufficient degree of motivation to see that you are satisfied. Not only are you not a second-class citizen, you’re not any kind of citizen. Citizenship has its benefits and you will never know this more clearly than when you are not entitled to any.

Your employer, however, has all the benefits of citizenship and then some. This is especially true if you work for a high-profile, vital-to-the-economy employer. Banks don’t want to get a lot of phone calls from the Swiss Cow, Pig & Goat Association* complaining about how they are treating SCPGA’s migrant workers, especially not specialists who the company have already paid big bucks to bring into the country.

Besides equalizing the power-differential in negotiations by creating a corporation-to-corporation duel, the business that is giving you ‘the business’  knows that long after you have left the country, they will still have to cope with the loss of reputation with your employer who may steer their migrant staff to other service-providers.

There is also the benefit that your company’s representatives speak the local language and understand those sneaky cultural nuances that trip you up, even if you are fluent in the local dialect.

If your employer has a relocation agent who facilitated your move, ask that agent for assistance. If you are not satisfied with your relocation agent’s response, ask them for details on the contract they have with your employer. This is a polite way of suggesting they might be in breach of their contract. They will be highly motivated to keep your employer happy, and sometimes just asking this will trigger a better response.

As a foreigner, by the way, you must always be polite. You have no choice about this. Deal with it.

In the end, you may not get everything you hoped for, but there’s a good chance you will have gotten more than if you had just tried to go it alone.

We did not get everything we hoped for, but while our debit cards are gone forever, we did end up with our bank account still active, which was our bare-bones necessity in this dust-up. With only three weeks to go, we shrugged our shoulders and moved on with our lives.

* I have made up an employer’s name. There is no Swiss Cow, Pig & Goat Association, and if there is, I apologize that someone named you that. 

24: Money, money, money.

Sure the Swiss annoy us with their endless palms-up-give-us-some-more-money approach to life, but no one can deny that they have cool urban spaces. This row in our town’s medieval district appears to house the drug-and-alcohol-addled, based on our observation while enjoying a coffee at a cafe across the street.

In the news that North America is still the best place to live, here’s a little tidbit: Dave’s boss incorporated his company and then leased a company car. In keeping with the Swiss dictum that all facets of life must be subject to a fee structure, Dave’s boss has to pay an annual $300 fee for the radio because his “employees” get to enjoy it, and by “employees,” Swiss bureaucrats mean the boss himself.

It just so happens that the team carpools together. It is not that much of a stretch to imagine that if this comes to the attention of the Swiss government, they could try to apply a $300 fee per person.

It may be that this money goes toward paying royalties, but it seems that radio stations already pay royalties for the music they play, so  probably this fee just goes to pay the salary of the fee-overseers.

Friends of ours renting an apartment are currently in a tangle with their landlord who is trying to charge them $600 for cleaning the lobby in their building. This is a big surprise to them. They thought they were a lawyer and accountant couple. Who knew they were also janitors?

In similar fee-nuisance news (or newsance): Buy a television set and pay $400 in ownership fees every year that you own the set. Someone is making money on this. I don’t think it’s the television manufacturers, vendors or buyers. It seems to be the government.

If you learn anything by living in different countries, it is that every place has its own way of organizing itself economically, and so perhaps this ladling-on  of fees makes sense in the broader picture, but it remains that every foreigner we know living and working here in Switzerland is here primarily for this reason: To see Europe. 

At the same time, every foreigner I’ve known in Canada gives me one reason for uprooting themselves from their homelands to move to a place where they have to learn a new language and often retread their academic credentials and endure some ethnic/cultural/racial discomfort. It is this: To make a better life for them and their family.

There is an air of fun to the first group, but an air of serious endeavor and earnestness in the second. No one in Europe yet has told me they are here for a better life, because the better life is across the Atlantic, and that is where we are headed in only 24 more days.

Note: Despite the possibly grouchy tone of this post, I still say the Swiss are sweethearts. If you get a chance to come here, take it.

30, 29, 28, 27, 26, 25: Some Shots From Switzerland

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Biel’s “beachtown” is up and open for visitors. Admission is free, and visitors can lounge all day if they like, but only vendor-served food and beverages are allowed inside. Not being able to read the German/French/Italian signage, I popped open a can of Coca Cola at last year’s beachtown and was quickly informed about the ‘no-outside food’ rule.

In classical Swiss fashion, however, the staff told me this discreetly, quietly, politely and said it was fine for me to finish my Coke, but please remember to buy from a vendor next time. I’m okay with this. After all, vendors’ fees contribute to the creation of this oasis.

Bouncers in black uniforms stand at the gates, possibly to keep out Biel’s increasingly cantankerous street crowd of alcoholics and druggies.  Alcohol is served in Beachtown where we’ve never seen anyone misbehave, but then we’re usually back in our hotel room before ‘party hours’ really begin. Nonetheless, this is Switzerland, the land of good manners and we expect that for the most part, the Swiss keep it reined in.

There’s all kinds of food available inside, including some delicious smelling Thai fare that we plan to sample soon.

 

32: Switzerland’s Sweet Slide Into Summer

The Swiss have got some things figured out perfectly, like how to have fun with what they’ve got, as we were reminded on our weekend stroll. The photograph above is the beginning stages of Biel/Bienne’s summer tropical pavilion, brought to Switzerland courtesy of some backhoes, truckloads of white sand and potted palm trees, all kissing up to the shore of Lac Biel.

This happens every year here. It’s funded by the municipality, it is a wonderful slice of Caribbean-living, and why not? The summer season is starting to cook, the temperatures will ride up to the high 30s and the humidity brings into question whether Switzerland really is an alpine country.

I cannot imagine something similar going over back in our home of Victoria, British Columbia. There, such a drastic environmental alteration would produce a band of swooning protesters and broiler-hot five-hour town hall meetings, where apple pie and “I didn’t fight in the Second World War to see my country come to this” motherhood statements would be flung around the room. I shrug. It is Victoria and it is what it is, but I wish they could see how it is done here.

The Swiss muck around with their environment repeatedly, but as for degradation and damage, no worries. The same equipment that creates this tropicana will be back in the fall to sweep it all up, replant and renew the area. They hold massive festivals here in our little town, chucking things around that would bring Victoria bylaw officers to their knees in horror (imagine drifts of confetti over a foot deep on Douglas Street), but quick as flash as soon as the festival is over, in comes the Swiss backhoe brigade to set everything right again. The morning after every festival, there is not a clue it ever happened.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to lazing on a cushioned wicker lounger, munching on hotdogs and sipping on iced tea under the shade of a palm tree on a white sand beach, all only a 15 minute walk from my hotel.

Dave wanders into the park and wonders, where the heck did all this sand come from? And the beach furniture? And the hot dog stand? From June 2011.

 

Before the beach, 2011: How the park usually looks – asphalt, lawn, shrubs, rock-line shore. Yes, I would like some palm trees, thank you.

33: What I Will Miss, Item Two

St. Stephen’s Church, Vienna

I will miss the grandeur of old stone churches both stark unadorned Protestant and elaborate ornate Catholic ones. I will also miss how the Europeans re-imagine old architecture in new ways, such as the light show they throw on Vienna’s massive St. Stephen’s Cathedral at night. Unforgettable, too, are the rivers of tourists clicking digital cameras at the sculptures of saints inside while milling around people at prayer. There is something time-warpish about seeing stone figures of long-ago Christians juxtaposed with today’s Christians in the pews surrounding them.

Tourists and congregants mix it up inside St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna.

 

34: What I Will Miss, Item One

No one has asked yet what I will miss about Switzerland, possibly because it is obvious that I will miss chocolate, cheese and canals full of swans, but another thing I will miss is strolling outside to the sound of Fiddler on the Roof, the Ride of the Valkyries or other classical music being played by the small street bands and accordion players who appear almost everywhere in this country. It is as though Swiss streets come with a  soundtrack.

35: Medieval Fashion Revival

 

Mais Il Est Ou Le Soleil raincoat

 

People do crazy things when they live in foreign places, like test out fashions they would never do back at home for fear of getting laughed out of the coffee shop. The fashion craze here is a mix of medieval court jester and peasant attire, which means lots of repeating-triangular hems, puffy skirts on coats and tops, multiple layers, tattered fringes.

Tatters cost extra. This top goes for $129-$160 in our town.

Europeans are slaves to fashion so if the stores sell it, they must wear it, and they do. They make it look good. I don’t, but I still bought a black version of this coat anyway. I wear it when I walk through our town’s medieval quarter.

A new vernacular on boho-chic abounds here as well, but unlike Canada’s bohemian set that goes for sharp colour clashes and funny socks, the Europeans modify the look. Wild on colour? They tilt toward a more conservative cut. Crazy cuts and lots of layers? They go to faded earthy hues so that the structure of the outfit stands out.

Age-stratification isn’t as sharp here either. While the younger set are the more daring in fashion, it is not uncommon to see middle-aged and even elderly women emulating their style.

I don’t try to blend too much with the local look. For one thing it is very expensive. Tattered t-shirts go for $129, when on sale. Ouch.

36:Oops

Due to an accounting error, I have been counting one day extra over our actual arrival date in Canada. As of today, May 25, we are 36 days away, not 37. I blame the public school system circa 1960/70s for this. And now here’s a picture of swans having a rough day on our town’s lake. Usually, choppy waters send the swans up the canal where the water is calmer, but on this day the lake must have pushed in some treats, because the swans braved the shoreline, sometimes getting thrown back against the rocks, all the while bobbing their heads down in the water nibbling away at something.

A rough day on Lac Biel for the swans.

37: Nuclear to hydroelectric to fossil to wind to solar power

Fly over Europe in this thing? Sure, why not?  Today, Switzerland proudly completed a solar-powered flight from its westerly region to Madrid, although why anybody would land in Madrid when perfectly delightful places such as Barcelona, Granada and Seville are so handy is beyond me. Source: AFP

Switzerland has 18 years to figure out how to make up almost half of the country’s electrical supply that will be lost when it closes its nuclear reactors.

Who can argue with the shutdown?  A nuclear meltdown in Switzerland would not have the dissipating effects of an ocean to float over for a year before making landfall. Instead, the DNA-altering radiation would funnel down in the valley between the Jura Mountains and the Swiss Alps, making Provence and its lovely vineyards but a memory. Good-bye Geneva, the United Nations, the Red Cross and Shania Twain’s home in Montreux.

The Swiss are looking to hydro-electric and fossil fuels to make up the 40 per cent power shortfall expected when the reactors go quiet, which might make environmentalists scream in agony, but there it is. The fact is people get testy when they turn on the light switch and nothing happens, and if this is true anywhere, it would be 10 times truer in Switzerland, the land where a train running two minutes late produces scowls and 15 minutes late is a national scandal. This is probably a good time to point out that Switzerland’s lauded rail system is powered by hydro-produced electricity, making it a non-emission producing transportation system. That’s how important electricity is here.

That does not mean the Swiss or the Europeans have waved the white flag on alternate energy. Europe as a whole is tinkering with it, although while the word “tinkering” might apply to the results produced, it is not the right word for the amount of money they’re putting into it. A better word would be “flooding.”

In 2010 and 2011 combined, Europeans chucked 25 billion Euros into wind power development, according to a report from the European Wind Energy Association. And for it, wind-sourced power  in 2011 comes in at 9,600 MW, while hydro-electric systems have delivered 179,000 MW. You can see that wind power has a long way to go, but one wonders how far it actually can go. It’s currently at around 6%, with expert forecasting optimal outputs at 20% of electrical energy requirements in about another 20 years. That’s still a long way from home.

It would be helpful at this point to learn how much money is going into the hydro-electric infrastructure system, but that is a harder one to peg. With wind, the numbers relate to new installations. With hydro-electric, it includes upgrades, maintenance and installations. It’s not an apple-to-oranges measure, although one could argue the merits of either system can be weighed based on money spent to MW-production. That seems like a good idea. But it is sunny outside, so I am not going to do the math on that. This is but a tiny little blog.

Here is where I stop quoting investment and output figures, because the numbers vary depending on who is writing the report. For example, the European Commission says only 19 billion Euros have been invested in wind power over 30 years, while the EWEA offers much higher figures. Frans Van Hulle, technical director at the EWEA says that wind is poised to become a mainstream energy supply, but then says it is only a nibble of the Euro-energy diet at three per cent.

I’m not an engineer, but when I see authoritative sources dueling over their stats and then making grandiose statements like Van Hulle’s, I suspect there might be more sales pitch and less science in their report.

38: Delemont

Angelic display outside a tapas bar at Delemont, Switzerland.

On the way to Saint-Ursanne, you can make a one-hour stop at Delemont, but why would you? It has an old-town, but it takes an uphill hike through a non-descript ‘modern’ zone to get there, and on the small-town scale it cannot match Twan, Thun or Neuchatel (Neuchatel also has a hike from the station to the medieval quarter and lakeshore, but it is a much more lovely cobblestone and rock-walled walkway.

No matter what we think of a Swiss town, we always appreciate their undulating roof-lines. They are adorable.

 

39: Saint-Ursanne: Founded by Rogueish Irish Monks

Saint Ursanne’s town core appears to have been a fortress that steps up into the Jura cliffs.

Saint-Ursanne is reportedly home to the sarcophagus of St. Ursicinus, a 7th-Century Irish monk exiled from France’s Burgundy region, although it is not clear if Ursicinus himself was exiled, or if he was merely following St. Columbanus who was most probably exiled, but may have just left the area due to continuing annoyances with the Frankish bishops.

Apparently, when the French called St. Columbanus to court to defend his observation of the Celtic dates for Easter, he simply failed to appear, but gave them the courtesy of a letter in which he reportedly said the bishops might include other important topics among their priorities besides the ancient Celtic religious calendar, all of which goes to show that Europeans have been rubbing each other the wrong way long before the Eurozone was introduced.

A replica of a statue of St John Nepomuk stands at the midway point of Saint-Ursanne’s Pont Saint-Jean Nepomucene. Built in 1973 by Laurent Boillat, it takes the weather-beatings, while the original statue carved from red sandstone hewn from Basel’s region is safe inside a nearby museum.

St. Columbanus is, by the way, the patron saint for motorcyclists, although how that happened I do not know because it would be 1,100 years after Columbanus’s death that motorcycles would be invented.

No matter. Intriguingly enough, Saint-Ursanne was packed with motorcycles the day we were there. I did not photograph any because motorcycles seem visually incongruous with 12th Century architecture. Not everyone will agree with me about this.

Despite this town’s close proximity to the French and German borders, there was no mention in  the brochure of how it weathered either World War, particularly WWII when the Swiss were readying to head for the hills in response to a threatened German invasion. There is an engraved marker in the cliff by the train station that lists WWI dates, so we might assume that Saint-Ursanne was among the Swiss observation points during that conflict.

Saint-Ursanne will be honoured this year (2012) by the Tour de France, which will pass through it around July 7th.

Tripadvisor only lists two inns in Saint-Ursanne. A Google search shows a little more than that. A nearby company rents kayaks and canoes for a paddle in the River Doubs.

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40: Saint-Ursanne in Pictures + Cafes

Swiss shutters are always picturesque.

Saint-Ursanne is a lovely place to visit if no reason other than that they are kind enough to print their tourism brochures in English, as well as the usual German, French and Italian. It is refreshing to look on an historical monument and not have to make up stories about it from our rough interpretations of non-anglicized leaflets.

One of Saint-Ursanne’s town gates.

Saint-Ursanne has preserved its medievalness by holding on to a non-franchise business model – this means, there is not a McDonalds in sight. The downside of a no-franchise model is that it immediately ups the cost of visiting here. Lunch for $40 a person, anyone? The upside is that the town retains its lovely charm. The lack of neon billboards is very likely the reason the place has such a serene ambiance.

There is, however, one food-related franchise allowed in – a Swiss franchise grocery store called Coop (pronounced koh-op), that sells lovely sandwiches for under seven francs, although it is closed on Sunday. A little convenience store opens on ‘Spanish business hours’ (closes for a two-hour lunch break), where tourists can bump up their blood sugar levels with chocolate and ice cream bars. For the more cultured, a wine and cheese shop is also open on Sunday.

Best to pack a lunch.  We long ago tired of funneling endless dollars into the Swiss restaurant industry, delightful as the restaurants are here, but still enjoy Swiss dining ambiance by whiling away some time over coffee and ice cream at street cafes. This town has a particularly charming outdoor cafe with the restaurant on one side of the street and the tables on the other, shaded by a large white awning tethered to twin rows of trees. The service was good, although the servers refuse to speak any English, and prattled on at us in French and German. We didn’t mind. When it comes to ordering coffee and ice cream, we are fluent in many languages.

A lovely shaded street-side cafe by the rue de quartier sits at the far end of this church grove. It is one of the best shaded eating spots in town.

41: Saint-Ursanne

When people think of little Swiss villages, the picture floating about in their minds is probably very much like Saint-Ursanne, a tiny 12th Century village we tramped through this weekend. Saint-Ursanne’s warped clay-topped buildings back into the Jura Mountains white limestone cliffs, and overlook the River Doubs and beyond to picturesque grazing pastures.

The train passes above Saint-Ursanne, more than through it, and so the town is a charming 10-minute hike down the Jura cliffs over this cobblestone street. The walk back up is about 30 minutes. We did see a bus take passengers down, but not up. This would be in keeping with Swiss tradition, which is to climb inclines at every opportunity. I’m joking. I’m sure there is a bus ride up the hill, but not that we saw.

The atmosphere here is lazy, with an almost Spanish sensibility, although we were mindful that this is still the shoulder season in the tourist calendar, and the town’s proliferation of antique shops and cafes suggest the place is packed with travellers at the peak of the season.

It is a lovely place to while away an afternoon.

For those interested in church history, it is home to the Maison de la Dime, the area’s bishop-prince’s house where the church’s tithe was held. A tithe today is understood as one-tenth of  a person’s income that is given to God, or because God does not trouble himself with banking, what with owning all the real estate there is, and being able to make more should the need arise, the money is given to the church. Some churches today accept tithing through debit machines and I am sure automatic withdrawals can be arranged, but back in the 1500s, tithing was a somewhat messier business as it represented one-tenth of all livestock and crops. This necessitated the prince-bishop’s storehouse.

Non-church-goers back home in Canada/U.S.: Keep your goats, sheep and other livestock at home should you decide to visit a church. Most churches consider visitors akin to houseguests and do not ask for your tithe, be it in money, cheque, plastic or livestock.

Visiting an historic church in Europe: We’ve never been asked to pay admission, although a few churches keep out a donation box.

42: Nuclear Nixed

Switzerland already uses solar power the old-fashioned way – with clotheslines. This rooftop clothesline is in the city core.

Switzerland derives 40 per cent of its electric power from six nuclear reactors* – all of which are slated for shutdown by 2030 as decided in a recent plebiscite. That gives the Swiss 18 years to figure out where to make up that considerable energy shortfall, and so they are looking into amping up their hydro-electric options.

A Swiss neighbourhood of row houses has multiple dedicated spaces for communal clotheslines. As a fan of sun-dried linens, I love this.

We tend to think of the frugal Swiss as energy-efficient what with their affection for public transport, train travel and these confounded greyish lightbulbs, but they’re not. On a global scale, they are 21st out of 217 countries in electricity consumption on a per capita basis. Canada is #4. Yes, we beat the Swiss in the hockey world championships this year and now they must deal with this added humiliation.

Before environmentalists jump on Canada for this, the reference point is for electrical consumption only, and that Canada is such a high consumer is related to its world-class hydro-electric infrastructure. Energy consumption correlates to national development, stability, industrialization and affluence, with the world’s saddest nations consuming the least power. I am waiting for David Suzuki to stand up and applaud Somalia for its “green” economy.

In the meantime, expect the Swiss to come up with something inventive to cope with their energy diet. They know how to make the most out of very little. They turned a landlocked, mountainous scrap of land into a world economic leader by selling things that can fit in your pocket: Drugs, watches and chocolate. ***

* Swiss media sources sometimes report the number of reactors at seven. The European Nuclear Society reports only five.

** Pharmaceuticals, not illegal drugs. This isn’t Mexico.

*** There is more to it than these three, of course. There’s also Swiss banking, cheese, ski resorts and the Red Cross. For such a small place, this country has a huge cultural footprint.

43: Switzerland: It’s not just about mountainside chalets.

The Swiss make everything look cute.

It’s the ordinary things that offer the best information about a culture, such as a homeless man’s cardboard domicile in Tokyo that Dave saw on a business trip there. Despite its humbleness, “It was the cleanest little box,” Dave recalls. When the lowest socio-economic strata of a society observes a certain custom – such as order and cleanliness – to such a high degree, that is a sign pointing to what colors the rest of its culture.

No visual obstructions between these two townhouses.

Americans have a “fix it” attitude, Spaniards have a “leave it” one, Aussies somehow occupy the duality of both colonial and republican mindsets, and Canadians – well, that’s for another blog post.

A stroll through an unassuming neighborhood along the canal banks near here suggest the Swiss are all about getting along with one another. In a condensed pack of row houses, the only dividers between gardens are low chain-link fences. We suppose that the exposed fencing is a strata requirement, but if that were the case and the neighbours found each other irritating, they would start planting tall hedges, but we didn’t see much of that.

Things change once inside the city core where we live, however, with plenty of screens and hedges between properties, but then everyone within a few blocks of here is tightly packed in.

We consider ourselves pretty friendly people, but when we bought our current house in Canada, one of the first things we did was plant tall-growing bushes shielding our backyard from our neighbors, even though they are all lovely people. That could suggest we are unfriendly, but more likely it points to a love of wearing pajamas while sipping on my morning coffee in the garden. That is what keeps Canadian culture clicking along: A love of caffeine and comfy clothing.

 

 

Back home in Canada: A hedge hides the houses beyond our backyard.

44: Switzerland: Sweet on street re-surfacing

New shellacked version of asphalt on the left; old matte version on the right.

If the Swiss know how to do anything, it is how to do a thing many times. They are obsessed with it. As an example, a perfectly sound stretch of pavement in front of our favorite bookstore on Nidaugasse has been resurfaced three times in the past year.

The first time made sense – there was underground work being done in the neighbourhood. The second time was a mystery, with the same asphalt topping being peeled off and then applied fresh. Last week, the workers were at it again, only now the new coating of asphalt has a distinct permanent shine to it along with some white flecks that make it look like polished cut granite. It is as though they are moving furniture, trying out one thing, eyeballing it, finding something just a little bit off, and then trying something else.

If you’re going to leave livestock penned up all over city streets, it is just possible that the asphalt will need resurfacing more often. This donkey petting pen is part of a festival that last year had a very angry Holstein cow who repeatedly charged at the fencing. Hotheaded Holsteins are nowhere to be seen in this year’s festival.

In my opinion, their aesthetic sensibilities are telling them to spend the big bucks and put down cobblestone, but their economic sensibilities say it is too expensive, so they are incrementally upgrading their asphalt. It’s one thing to do this when shuffling a sofa around a living room, but another thing when it involves heavy machinery.

Nonetheless, that is the Swiss way. It would never go over in North America. For one thing, Canada is too big to treat road surfacing as window dressing, the United States is too broke and in Mexico (yes, I do know Mexico is part of North America), road crews are too busy cleaning off the latest grisly drug-war kills to get around to repaving anything.

We are still here for another 44 days. My money is that it is 50/50 that they’ll redo the surface before we book out.

45: Switzerland’s vacation vaccination

Yesterday, after elbowing my way through three grocery stores packed with shoppers on the verge of taking up sniper posts atop the shelves, it seemed a good idea to inquire what was going on, just in case the Swiss were stocking up in light of a pending nuclear meltdown.

The hotel staff informed me today is a holiday “bigger than Christmas.” They were uncertain whether this is the day of Ascension or Pentecost, but they were sure it was a day off. Nice to see the Swiss, a secular bunch,  so scrupulously devoted to the religious calendar and any vacation days it might afford.

I worked in a newspaper. I’m pretty sure the protesters complained the media was deliberately casting them in a bad light when they ran this photo, but then, if the protesters didn’t want to look like Nazis, why did they engage in this salute? Of course, if they had actually been in class, they might have learned this was not a good idea, symbolism-wise. Source: Montreal Gazette

So we have been outside in the sun, strolling along the canals, not sure if we are marking the coming of Holy Spirit or the day Jesus hightailed it for heaven, but enjoying God’s goodness either way. The swans are nesting in giant wickerish mounds and the fishers are out with their extended poles, standing on metal platforms the size of diving boards. It’s lovely and yet the Swiss have said they have enough, no more vacation days for us, thanks.

In this season of mass protests against austerity measures, the Swiss voted down a proposal to expand their minimum annual paid vacation from four to six weeks. The Swiss can vote for crazy things like prostitute garages and keeping women from voting (until the 1980s), but sometimes their poll results reveal an intelligent electorate mature in its understanding of economics.

In the meantime, back home in Canada, Quebec’s premier Jean Charest cratered to protesters who stormed university classrooms this week and used belligerence to empty the rooms. Quebec is the only province where a masked man bursting into a room and shouting is usually the overture to gunfire, so it was an odd choice by the protesters, but then they have not been in school in weeks, so maybe they missed the history class covering the slayings at L’Ecole Polytechnique (1989), Concordia University (1992) and Dawson College (2006).

The premier shut down the spring sessions. I don’t get it, although in his defense Quebec’s opposition party is gleefully taking advantage of the unrest and throwing more fuel on the fire.

None of that for Geneva where voters approved tougher penalties for pushy protesters. Quebeckers are fond of referendums. Maybe they’ll take a tip from the Swiss and use one to restore order to their streets and campuses. If they don’t do it, it doesn’t look like anyone will, least of all their leaders.

46: Under the watchful eyes of Swiss authorities

My son’s mother’s day card arrived yesterday, conveniently pre-opened for me courtesy of Switzerland’s postal service. In Europe, one need not worry about opening a letter-bomb because it is a sure thing the authorities have already had a run through your mail.

This often is the case with international mail. Happily, they appear disinterested in our local mail, perhaps because they are too horrified by the slenderness of the account statements our Swiss banker sends us. Nothing repulses the Swiss more than the idea of underfed bank accounts. They cannot look at them.

In a non-scientific survey conducted by me, out of five nations not named here, Switzerland’s post service turned out to be the snoopiest. They even beat the Australians who may not even open their own mail, much less someone else’s. Meanwhile the Swiss have opened almost everything of ours incoming and outgoing alike, and occasionally they have ‘seized’ some goods, such as a squishy gel-pighead that flattens when flung against a hard surface, then slowly unsticks as it resumes its shape. That was for my 33-year-old lawyer son, you Swiss nogoodniks, and he wants it back.

Last week, Swiss Post announced a quarterly profit of 299 million Swiss Francs. I am not saying this is related to the pilfering that has occurred among the souvenirs I’ve sent home, but how does a post office post such profit? The answer is, when it is not a post office. Swiss Post is also a banking institution, which makes us shake our heads in amazement. Is there no venture that escapes the notice of Swiss bankers?

It might explain how Switzerland has 45,000 “postal” employees to serve 8 million Swiss, while Canada’s 35 million citizens squeak by on only 60,000. But then, maybe one postal worker for 177 residents is needed when postal service includes opening customers’ mail.

For my American friends: U.S. Postal Services has 546,000 “career” postal workers, and I cannot say why they inject the word “career” there except that it suggests they are “lifers,” just as there are “career” criminals. That means there is one postal worker for every 572 Americans, which seems a desirable ratio given that U.S. postal workers are the ones who created the term “going postal” by occasionally unloading their firearms at inappropriate moments. As a postscript: No U.S. Postal Service workers opened our mail when we lived in the U.S. None need come looking for us. 

47: Pared Packing or The Gauntlet Has Been Thrown

Why I carry a lime-green suitcase - here is the last place we saw it at Victoria Airport. Poor little suitcase. Will we ever see it again?

Our lime-green suitcase before it got lost, then beaten badly, en route from Canada to Switzerland. Traumatized, it refused to return to Europe and is hiding under the bed at our cabin in Ontario.

The house slippers went out yesterday: Rubbery black crocs with crushed faux-lamb lining discarded in my campaign to lighten my luggage. I almost felt sorry for them, little Euro-crocs whose hopes for a better life in America were dashed on the empty egg cartons in our kitchen trash.

Skinnying down my suitcase is not in my nature, however, it is a happier prospect than wrenching a shoulder dragging luggage from the hotel to the train station, up the train steps, off again through another station, into the yaw of Zürich’s Airport where I will be pressed upon to walk for 85 minutes with the thing. This is Switzerland’s mandatory travellers’ fitness test. If you can do the forced march through their airport security maze, they will let you in the country, and later they may even let you out.

And so everyday I stare at my dwindling possessions to figure out what else I can live without. Considering that I travelled with four full hockey bags, two large suitcases plus carry-on luggage on a round-the-world ticket over a 5 month period, what is happening now is on par with the miraculous. I expect a letter from Vatican  investigators to arrive any day.

This is the grandiose manner in which I look at this project, but on hearing of the ughy-crocs’ demise, Dave asserted he could get all of his goods in one carry-on suitcase. In a recent practice pack, his goods took up a full suitcase and a carry-on. He’d have to shave off two-thirds of his possessions to make good on his boast.

Conveniently, this Thursday is a holiday, so instead of visiting Lucerne, Bern or some other delightful Swiss city, we are going to be holed up in our hotel room, trying to best one another at lightening our luggage.

48: How to write a blog a day

Can you write something every single day? Yes, you can. It might not be good, it’s very unlikely to be great,  but what does it matter? Here are a few tips on how to do it:

  1. Keep it short. 150 words is good. When Stuff White People Like hit its stride, earning its authors a book deal and moolah, its average post was very short, often around 300 words. Click here for a great example. 
  2. Stay on topic. This may sound tough, but it is harder to open the gates and write about anything. If your blog has a theme, enrich it. Dig into some minute detail. It might surprise you.
  3. Who is your audience? Are you writing for your friends and family back home? Write anything you like as though you are chatting over coffee, all while keeping a prudent eye on your script, because if you write something nasty about Aunt Agatha, it could be in the copy-and-paste evidence folder for years to come. Are you writing a public blog for anyone? Think about whether they need to know what you’re about to tap out.
  4. Surf news sites. If you’re writing a guide on travel, carpentry, faith, politics, home decor, gardening, dog-training, keep up-to-date on your topic.
  5. Blog site lite. There are many high-quality blogs out there, but who wants to eat off someone else’s plate? Don’t spend too much time on blog sites. Generate your own goods.
  6. Go for a walk.  There’s a lot of good raw data out on the street. About 90 per cent of my blog topics come from what I see around me in Switzerland, the rest come from checking out Swiss news and government websites.
  7. Write garbage. If you’re stuck, just start writing. Don’t worry about the quality, just get at it. What you’ll find is that after ejecting the first few paragraphs of nonsense, the real stuff you want to write about will float to the top.
  8. Edit. Read The Elements of Style by E.B. White and William Strunk. Do not be intimidated. This thin little volume dating back to 1918 is the professional writer’s Bible. If you write and edit with this book as a guide, you cannot go wrong. Read it, then go look at some of your old blog posts and see where you could do better. And yes, you can always do better.
  9. Chill. Nothing kills creativity like stress. Do something else for a while to let your brain unknot.
  10. Stress. Chill and Stress are not polar opposites. They are two halves of a perfect whole. After you have let your brain relax, pummel it back into shape with a good workout. Many a fine piece of writing was wrung out under deadline pressure.

Note: The above applies best to public blogs. Private blogs that are letters to friends and family have few rules. In these, you are writing to people who already adore you, already think you’re clever and want to know how your day is going. Private blogs I have hooked on to include

  • Personal News Blogs: A friend chronicling her and her husband’s journey through his health crisis. By clicking on that, I could keep track of how they were doing without pestering her with my notes of concern. When a person is sick, sometimes the spouse/close-relative/caregiver can be swamped with answering phone calls and emails from concerned friends and family. This blog spared her that.
  • Wedding Blogs: Weddings generate lots of chatter as well, and the bridal couple has enough to do. My kids’ wedding blogs served as great communication tools. They provide practical information (such as listing hotels close to the wedding venue) and stuff that families just like to know, like mini-biographies of the wedding party or family members.
  • Travel/life-experience Blogs: Friends who went on a mission trip that turned somewhat catastrophic wrote a gripping blog about their misadventures. It was reading that could not be missed, all the more so for knowing it was taking place on the other side of the globe and no one knew the eventual outcome. Scary stuff, but it was good to know what our friends were going through.

51: Switzerland famous for meringues? Who knew?

From The Swiss Bakery Online

One of our sons wed last summer and the other is wedding this, and so my time in Europe has been a training exercise in pastry-avoidance so as to not appear as a chiffon-draped water buffalo at either event.

Now, staring down my failed campaign (not in the avoiding of pastries, that I have done admirably well, but in the avoidance of the said ungulate’s dimensions), and with only 51 days left to go, it seems time to lift the pastry moratorium and give Switzerland’s bakers a run.

I started today by tasting a meringue, on the recommendation of a local Swiss who tells me this country is famous for its meringues. Not in North America, they are not, I wanted to tell her, but as a guest in her lovely country, who am I to mess with its meringue mythology?

Meringues come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from the apple-sized powder puff to the pop-in-your-mouth cookie. They are sometimes bowl-shaped to allow for fruit and whipping cream in its cavity – a laudable idea, but one that could blanket the meringue’s real merits, so I opted for the plain cookie version (this is not the soft foamy meringue that tops North America’s lemon meringue pies).

They are a two-ingredient concoction – sugar and powdered egg – but not just any egg, a European egg. What is the difference between a European and a North American egg? Not a thing, as far as I can tell, except that European eggs are unrefrigerated, which may be why my husband is still in bed reeling from the Mother of All Food Poisonings.

Meringues are low in calories – only 100 calories in 25 grams or four pieces in the bag I picked up at the local store. They taste exactly as you might expect from a  sugar and egg white combination whipped into a froth and hardened in a slow oven (90 minutes or more at 200 F), that is, they taste like an airy teaspoon of sugar. Inside the exterior sheath that is a white thin crispy layer,  their bisque-hued innards have the texture of stiff foam with a slightly yielding spongy centre.

Here’s a recipe and video-guide on baking meringues. This recipe includes cream of tartar and vanilla, but the Swiss version only has the  egg whites and fine sugar. It is a fine addition to a dessert dish, but its unlikely it will ever overshadow chocolate as the Swiss export of glory.

52: Whitney Houston’s Hotel Room

Canadian and Swiss over-the-counter medications are not always evenly matched.

Were I to die in my hotel room, the coroner’s office would not find any illegal drugs in my luggage or my system, but they would still find enough meds to make them think I have a Tylenol addiction.

I don’t.

People who live perpetually ‘on the road,’ have to pack a lot of meds because

  • They can never be sure of a 24-hour pharmacy and
  • They can never be sure of a 24-hour pharmacist that speaks their language and
  • They can never be sure of a 24-hour pharmacy that stocks the same brands or dosage levels familiar to them.

In this light, the drug stash  inside suddenly deceased celebrity’s hotel rooms (Whitney Houston, Heath Ledger) don’t look so bad.

Shockingly, despite the fact that drug companies have global reaches, we have seen some variation in meds not to mention how to acquire them. Dave very nearly lost the use of his airway in Spain in 1999 when a Spanish doctor insisted the antibiotics he was prescribing for Dave were super-duper and required only one pill a day for three days. As mother to a chronic-strep-sufferer, this violated everything I knew about antibiotic dosing, so as the week moved on and Dave’s swollen gland gained new real estate in his neck, I called in another doctor and we proceeded to drench Dave in antibiotics until it no longer appeared he was trying to swallow a baseball. I am not exaggerating.

I am thinking of all this because Dave ate some bad lasagna and spent a good part of the night volunteering up his bodily fluids and vital organs. As it happens, I have about 180 little pink anti-nausea pills, so not only was I armed for last night, I was ready to deal with either 60 other nights like it, or to provide assistance to our entire hotel’s guest roster, should it be required.

I am not a pill-popper, although a look into my luggage might suggest otherwise, however, I will leave Switzerland with very nearly the same amount of drugs as I brought into it. If you are travelling for an extended period, it is a good idea to pack your own mini-drugstore for common non-doctorly ailments.

Important tip: Prescription drugs are excluded from airline liquid limits, however, they must be transported in the same bottle with prescription labeling in order to qualify. Otherwise, some snotty security staffer will seize and dispense of them as one Canadian airport security official did to an elderly woman’s heart medication as she was boarding a 70-minute flight from Victoria (or was it Vancouver) to Calgary, necessitating a tremendous panic in her family that by itself could have been heartstopping. Never underestimate the stupidity of power-obsessed bureaucrats, even in airport security uniforms.

But I drift from my topic. Before you hit the road, visit your doctor and ask for a top-up on prescriptions, then fill enough of them to cover your absence (in my case, 18-months of absence from the comforts of Canadian pharmacies means I have 18 months worth of everything – it’s expensive, but better than dealing with a non-English-speaking doctor).

Add to that over-the-counter meds to cope with pain, fever, inflammations, nausea, diarrhea, stomach upset, cold, flu and allergies. It may seem like a lot, but if you are stricken at 3 a.m., when these cursed things seem to peak, you will have renewed appreciation of the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared.

*Yes, I have written about stocking your own drugstore for overseas trips, but it is worth a repeat, especially in light of last night’s horrors.

53: Sweet or seriously stupid?

The canal is deeper and the water shallower than it looks in this photo.

Look at this happy couple smiling for the camera that records their folly. The woman is balancing on a rolled railing, her center of gravity perilously supported by this young man who does not look malicious in anyway, but his joy suggests he is not truly aware that his lady love is a mere 2-lb. push away from a 15-foot drop down a sheer cement wall to the canal floor, a fall that will be cushioned by 10-inches of water and a bed of baseball-sized stones.

I almost write: What idiots! But then I remember all the stupid things I did as a youth, things that were just as dangerous and yet did not appear so at the time to my inexperienced mind.

Even now, decades later, some memories float back to me recast in the light of a whole whack of information on innocent missteps gone horribly wrong – memories that make me gasp, slow down, think twice, turn back.*

I’ve seen this young couple since, embracing on a bench where the greatest danger is an 18″ fall on a floor of weeds, cigarette butts and dog poo. It is a yukkier prospect, fecal-matter-wise, but one from which they could race back home on their non-spinal-injured responsive legs.

*The truth is I still do stupid things sometimes, although none that involve perching over a steep drop.