May Day Riots – No thank you

Switzerland, the land of peace and order? Yup. Rioting on same day every year.

The Swiss are known for precision-timing and this is true even for aberrant behavior.

Once a year, the Swiss get together in large cities – Zürich and Bern – where they burn cars, attack police, and generally wreak havoc, and that once-a-year is this weekend. It is how they celebrate May Day.

I remember Canadian May Days differently. They were made up of pole wrapping events where elementary school students dressed in spring pastel colours (boys, too, poor chumps) danced around a pole, each holding a broad colourful ribbon that they corporately braided around the pole.

Not me though. I was never chosen for the May Day dance. Even then, my teachers could see I shouldn’t be let alone with a long piece of rope in any form.

It was social death for a boy to be selected. I remember the year Martin Watts (his real name) got tapped for the St. Avila Elementary School May Day dance. Martin was only in the fourth grade, but he was old enough to know his life of manliness was flashing before him in a fiery ball of death. I wouldn’t say that Martin was a tough or a bully, but he was definitely someone to be avoided by those of us averse to bruising.

The things we do to kids.

To his credit, he did not cry. While the chosen girls exulted over their triumph, he had a tantrum the likes of which remains impressive even today, some 40-odd years later, much to the confusion of the proud teacher who delivered the happy news that he had made the cut. She likely possessed some neurological defect that prevented her from realizing the horror that would descend on any male forced to wear yellow and pink lederhosen while skipping around a pole singing fa la la.

In the end, poor Martin lost out, and he skipped along with the other students, red-faced, fuming and deliberately out-of-step. The lederhosen did nothing for his figure either.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the social outfall of this event led Martin to migrate to Europe where he inevitably launched an amazing career as the chief protagonist in May Day riots.

All this is to say, we’re not taking any big excursions this weekend, which may seem like chickening out, but Dave’s Swiss colleagues strongly advised against it. Of course, in my old reporter-life, the news of scheduled mayhem would have me walking right into the centre of it, the closer to the maniacs running the protest the better.

When I think about it now, I wonder how I escaped injury, except that anarchists were probably too surprised to see a middle-aged, middle-class woman with a badly knotted silk scarf show up in their midst, demanding answers. Probably thought I was a misguided teacher about to force them into a May Day dance.

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Paris food, score one; Home food, score zero

Things are not going so well in the home-cooking department, a fact more notable after spending a weekend in Paris.

It’s not entirely my fault. I’m handicapped with a state-of-the-art $3,000 wall oven and a matching ceramic cook top that works on one setting: Inferno.

Anyone who understands this panel, please write to me.

The oven is a convection/microwave/conventional contraption with a panel of buttons that look like this (see right):

Can you point out the microwave button? No, it is not “M,” although that would seem about right. Almost four weeks in and we are still not sure what the M button does, except that pressing it causes a red light to glow and a rotating fan symbol to appear. It may a “blending” function.

The instructions aren’t very helpful either –  they’re in French, Italian and German, a hurdle that did not dissuade me much until I ran them through Google-Translate. It now appears the instructions were written by NASA scientists who spent a lot of time in the lab, and not much in writing class.

Tonight,  I decided to roast garlic. A few minutes in, something did not smell right and I opened the oven to find garlic shards blackened on the outside, rock-hard through the centre. I threw them into a frying pan, thinking that any heat is good heat so a little time with some butter would do the trick. It did not, possibly owing the inferno setting.

My humble attempt at supper.

Next, I unpeeled the wild coho salmon packaging to find that most of the contents were some kind of styro-cardboard backing over which a few bologna-style slices of fish lay in state. I tried to not think of the giant slabs of salmon I could have bought at home in Victoria for the price I paid for bologna-salmon.

Terrified into submission by the elitist oven, I didn’t dare attempt to bake or grill the fish. I put it in a pot to fry (yes, a pot for frying – I can’t fit the wider-bottomed frying pans on my small cooktop).  Now I have hardened salmon shards to match the garlic.

The one thing that our kitchen turns out with great success is carrots. We are having them every night. Already, we are seeing orange everywhere.

In the meantime, Dave just came home, looked in the pot of salmon and said, “We’re having carrots again?”

Paris thieves – prettier than you would expect

Gare de Lyon Paris train station on a slow day.

The girl was wide-eyed, frantic. About 20 years old, fresh complexion, dressed in clean, crisp spring colours, with her hair pulled back into a girlish pony tail; her words spilled over themselves as she rolled a smart-looking suitcase up to the cafe table just behind us.

We were at Paris’s Gare de Lyon train station, which sees something like a 10 million passengers a year. I could have made that figure up, but actually, I read it somewhere, but cannot remember where at the moment, so cannot vouch for its accuracy.

She hoisted an expensive-looking camel-and-turquoise-beaded leather handbag over to the man seated at the table behind us. She spoke French but it was clear she was asking him to watch her baggage, while she accomplished some errand. At that moment, it did not occur to us the errand was to escape capture.

Gare de Lyon train station, Paris. The launch site of many exciting travels as well as thefts.

He said no as he passed the handbag back at her. It was then that her purpose became clear. She punted the suitcase to the next table, but instead of beseeching anyone else’s help, she took flight, the handbag under her arm, and the suitcase abandoned.

Even then, we were too baffled to shout “Stop thief,” although I’ve wanted to do that all my life. The man she had approached got up and rolled the suitcase away, presumably to security. Later, we realized how dangerous this situation could have been – a girl fleeing luggage – the case could have held a bomb.

As it was, we lamented some poor woman who would likely get her suitcase back, but not her purse and whatever possessions or passport were inside it.

European thieves – who knew that in addition to being conniving and criminal, they’d also be cute.

And now for a few well-worn travel tips:

  1. The money belt is your friend, even if it makes you look like you’ve put on a pound or two: Could a pickpocket worm his/her way through your shirt, belt, pant-waistband to get at your money belt (which is where you should keep your passport)? I don’t know, but it would be interesting to see them try.
  2. Spread the cards around: Carry credit/identity cards in different spots, so that if you do get robbed, you will still have some resources.
  3. Do not carry valuables in a knapsack on your back. Those are just open store shelves to thieves.
  4. For those who are live in a world dominated by Murphy’s Law: If you’re travelling as a couple/group, both/all should wear money belts (there’s no reason why only one person should look plump). While one of us carries the passports, the other carries photocopies of the passports, just to make life easier when we show up at the embassy, in the event we do get robbed.
  5. Be cautious of any attention-grabbing event, however innocuous it may seem. Dave’s work-colleagues put their luggage up on an overhead compartment on a Swiss train from Geneva. A person came down the aisle and “accidentally” sprayed coins all over the floor. Dave’s colleagues, nice guys both of them, obligingly helped the person retrieve the coins. Later they discovered their baggage had been pilfered. In another more gripping incident, a woman faked throwing a baby off a bridge, after which she disappeared and so did the wallets and valuables of the onlookers/rescuers. The “baby” was a bundle of rags.
  6. Don’t stand on the street when opening a map: Find a seat in a cafe or a bench.
  7. This is not the time to exhibit your hugginess. Anyone coming close to you is suspect, but it is almost impossible to avoid physical contact while getting on or off a train/subway, which is why those are prime pick-pocketing times, so the best you can do then is be aware of your surroundings and make sure your valuables are not in easy-to-access spots.

A Paris riot – or just random running?

 

As we crossed the Pont d’lena bridge on the northwest side of the Eiffel Tower, we heard a loud jingling noise. Was it Christmas?

The noise grew.  Young men with Middle-Eastern complexions were racing around us in what looked like the start of a riot. Oh good. Something to write home about.

It was actually Dave the Alert who noticed that only dark-skinned men were running, their rings of souvenirs filling the air with their musical jingling. It was a very contrary scene.  On the one hand, we felt the pressure of herd-behavior and wanted to run. On the other, the jingling made me reach for my wallet and look around for a Salvation Army kettle.

I did not notice the runners’ ethnicity right away, but I was cognizant of the fact that France’s controversial new prohibitions on face-concealing burqas had just come into effect.

Joanne, perspiring from recurrent hot flashes, not from near-almost-mob-trampling. Seriously, hot flashes are more scary.

Yes, I’m writing it just like that. It’s politically incorrect to notice anyone’s race/ethnic-origin these days, but as a retired reporter, I just say it like it is, and it is like this: Recent ethnic-group-targeted-law + Middle-Eastern males in flight = Get the Heck Out of There.

I could take the oblique route and say no blond middle-aged women were seen fleeing the scene, but that’s only because I (blond middle-aged woman) have 1. a bad Achilles tendon, and 2. am too dense to realize when something is happening, even if something is Middle-Eastern males running at high speeds through a city famous for Muslim-youth riots only a few years ago.

Soldiers, arms at the ready, patrol Paris's streets.

Within seconds, we found ourselves standing alone on a broad swath of pavement that moments earlier had been packed with people. This could not be good, and then we saw the reason for the running. His strut drew attention even from across the street – a Paris police officer. We quickly ascertained that those fleeing from him were unlicensed vendors, and maybe even illegal aliens. Who knows?

The police made no attempt to chase down the vendors, who actually raced through a line of armed soldiers, who also made no move to apprehend. It was clear this was just business as usual, although for the remainder of the time we were at the Eiffel Tower, the vendors kept a watchful and anxious eye out on the crowds.

Sadly, the police officer and soldiers refused my request to take their photo. I did not argue. This will surprise police officers in Victoria who know me, but it may have been because of the assault rifles and Glocks in full view, and the fact that I was a guest in a foreign country, and so on my best behavior.

Tomorrow: Thieves in Paris – cute, adorable, efficient.

A French garden and an Italian squabble

A giant circular pond of green brackish water in Tuileries Garden attracts sunbathers.

As I sit here in our Swiss flat with the patio door open, an Italian domestic spat is going on downstairs.  It’s what we call a “breaking story,” so I’ll report on it in italics (how suitable) as I enter today’s scribblings on our trip to Paris.

It is a testament to spin doctors of all generations that the word “garden” is imbedded in the name Tuileries Garden, which are the grounds outside the Louvre.

I use the word “grounds” deliberately, because it suggests a flat, uninterrupted horizontal space, which is what we found, instead of the expected cultured urban forest.

The woman’s voice climbs upward into an elegant aria, accented by a few words here and there from the man. I have no idea what they’re saying, but it sounds like an argument over him spending too much time on the phone with his mother. 

A 19th-century sculpture, or a modern-day visitor in Paris's midday sun?

Who would have thought the French would lay a belly of gravel as a garden centerpiece?

The garden (term loosely applied) is almost 500 years old, so we looked forward to strolling beneath broad sweeps of mature shade trees. It was not to be.

Paris must have a very hostile climate, because in its few scattered groves, the trees that it did have were about the size of the cherry trees we planted in our backyard in 2004.

The woman lectures at machine-gun speed, the man responds in short resigned sentences.

A later generation of Tuileries’ garden planners circa 19th-century, probably seeing the trees were not doing so well,  trimmed the gravel flats with stone sculptures of human figures in various stages of angst, foreshadowing the postures of modern-day visitors withering under the sun.

The Louvre, the mobs and some guy on a horse trying to get through it all.

A door slams! The woman has left! 

How did the sculptors know? We were fascinated by their foresight. Either that, or the heat stroke brought on by standing in the furnace of a stone-and-gravel chamber has rattled our senses.

We now understand the French Revolution in a new light, which had some of its most poignant events occur in the summer heat. Of course the French were cranky. What else could they be?

As for the Italian revolution downstairs, the woman is back. I knew she would be. She tells the man she loves him. He tells her the same. She says something else. He grunts. Her voice goes up – yes, they’re back at it again. 

The "garden" outside the Louvre.

Someone comes into the room – the mother-in-law perhaps? She has a more mature voice. The couple’s tone softens. The woman takes a few cloaked stabs at the man, then, the sound of cutlery, and the older woman’s voice.

Ah, she is solving their argument with food, the force that has sustained Italian culture over the centuries. 


 

Tomorrow: More Paris – the homeless, the fake riot and train-station thievery. 

And now,  in the spirit of fairness, despite my whining over their parks-board decisions, Paris is beautiful. Here’s the proof:

Charming little cafe near the Notre Dame Cathedrale. According to its signage, the cafe has been in operation since 1594, ie. shortly before my ancestors decided they had enough of this place and bolted for Canada. This in no way should be taken to reflect my family's opinions on French food.

Pont Alexandre III: Beautifully embellished bridge, and like so many Paris sites, built for the 1900 World Fair. Cannot imagine what a dull place Paris was, architecturally speaking, before the World Fair.

Grand Palais des Beaux Arts: Art nouveau iron and glass structure erected for the 1900 World Fair.

A rental bike post outside of our hotel (Waldorf Arc d'Triomphe on rue Pierre Demours). These stands were all over Paris. We didn't rent any bikes, owing to our terror of French roadways and the drivers that populate them, but saw quite a few being ridden by tourist-types.

I have no idea what this is.

Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris: Christian site since 250 AD, church building started of one sort or another existed on or near here since the 4th century. This building's construction began in 1163.

The cemetery at Montparnasse, burial-place of many notables including Emile Durkheim (pioneering sociologist), Simone de Beauvoir (French philosopher, author), and the Roy family, of which we may or may not be related through my maternal great-grandmother.

Paris, the small stuff

Paris, city of love and of lights. Also, city of people, lots of them.

First impressions are important, and never more so than when arriving in a foreign city packed with pick pockets and con artists, so as soon as possible after stepping onto Paris soil, I fell fall flat on it.

It could be that I stumbled, but it could also be that I wanted to assume a somewhat intimidating appearance – scuffed clothes, bloodied hands and knees, along with an imbedded sour facial expression.  It couldn’t hurt: We had just come from Gare de Lyon, Paris’s train station that has an estimated 10 million passengers per year, 86 per cent of which appear to have showed up at the same time we did.

Stepping off the train into a sweltering heat, we were pulled into a river of human flesh, which may sound like fun, but not so much if you’re five-feet in height (using some liberties by applying the word “height” here) and the view is of blue sky above, shoulder blades and face-mashing knapsacks below.  As we spilled along, I exclaimed to Dave that I had no idea where I was going, whereupon a fellow-traveller, who looked suspiciously French, pointed us into the correct stream of flesh.

The huddled masses at the Eiffel Tower where thousands waited in line for the privilege of riding an elevator to the top (or worse, climbing the staircase).

I say “suspiciously,” because the French are famous for being snotty. It is reputed to be a matter of national pride, but it turns out that the world is wrong about that. We encountered many French over our 48-hours in Paris and can only report two who met the elevated standards of snottiness we have come to expect in France’s population, and they both were waiters, and so were professionally required to adopt an aloof and even hostile posture.

Here is important serious travel-tip number one for arriving in Paris (or any foreign destination): Do not be first off the train. It turns out we could have waited five or ten minutes for the crowd to disperse, and then walked out without feeling we had become overly intimate with 97,813 strangers.

Here is important serious travel-tip number two: When moving along in a crowd of immense numbers, if you spy someone in your national dress who bears physical features suggesting a fellow-countryman/woman just as  you are at the top of a concrete staircase do not stop to inquire about the news at home. 

This actually happened. A beautiful black Nigerian-looking woman in front of us stopped at the top of the subway staircase when she saw a beautiful black Nigerian-looking man coming up in her direction. He, bless his heart, kept moving during their exchange, but she assumed the attitude of one waiting for a menu to appear, ie. stopped dead in her tracks and put her considerable assortment of luggage down. At this moment, about 80,719 people were still behind me and the danger of being pushed down the staircase was very real.

On the one hand, I could have been hurt. On the other hand, we would have covered a lot of ground very quickly, so it may not have been so bad.

That is not where I fell, by the way. That happened about an hour later at the Arc d’Triomphe where I pitched over face-first on an almost invisible curb in the uneven cobblestone surface at the Arc. No one was even near me. I fell on my own steam, which is pretty much what I have been doing all my life, so it was good to know that some things do not change, even in Paris.

Tomorrow: More about Paris.

Paris: One city, four hotels

The travel gargoyles are against us!

We have not set foot in Paris yet, and already we are on to our fourth hotel there.

It began with a little online excursion into a popular European travel website where the online travel-shopper enters in the dates they are travelling, whereupon the site spits out a bunch of hotel deals with different dates.

Why would anyone program a website in this way, unless they have malevolent intent on my bank account?

I, unwittingly, picked the Hotel de Vendome, not realizing I was booking into a room that very night.  And so we backed out of that one. You can check my posting here if you’re in the mood to read a travel-rant.

Not staying here at the Hotel de Vendome, although that would have been nice.

Then we learned that the hotel chain where we are currently guests in Switzerland also owns a pile of hotels in Paris, so we visited with our concierge who booked a room for us at a sister-hotel. We relaxed. Too soon.

The hotel contacted us later saying that our booking was made in error, there were no rooms available at any of their Paris hotels, but they recommended another hotel chain. They blamed a glitch in their internal computer system, but we suspect the hotel chain’s cleaning staff’s grapevine has it in for us. Maybe we don’t tip enough?

Next we went to http://www.expedia.com, which found a great deal for us at the Waldorf  Madeleine, near the heart of Paris.

When I wrote to confirm our reservations at the Madeleine, the concierge wrote back to say our rooms were under renovation and not ready, therefore they have booked rooms for us in another Waldorf hotel, the Arc d’Triomphe.

The Hotel Waldorf Madeleine - we are not staying here either.

At this point, I’m afraid to send a confirmation note to the Arc d’Triomphe for fear it will draw their attention to us, whereupon they will hit the eject button, a serious danger because we’ve noticed that our hotels started out very close to the centre of Paris, but every move takes us further outward. We haven’t passed the city limits yet, but that is the way we appear to be going.

The Waldorf Arc de Triomphe - Will we stay here? Will we triumph over Paris elusive hotels?

But how bad can it get? We’re leaving tomorrow – it’s not as if there are two more weeks to go, providing hotels 14 days to progressively bump us further and further away from Paris until we find ourselves staying in a Super 8 in Moscow.

Cop Shop

As a reporter,  I maintained a no-sweat policy at police stations. I refused to race into them, because it seemed unwise to arrive in a sweat, possibly raising suspicions that I was fresh from a bank heist, thereby triggering the police’s “arrest-and-detain” instincts. ***

A police station in Lauterbrunnen, not the police station that I had to visit to get our residency cards. I took this photo because its unassuming appearance suggests Switzerland's low crime rate.

But I did break into a sweat when my husband suggested that I go all on my own to the police station here in Switzerland to pick up our residency cards.

The last time I went there I was accompanied by a tri-lingual corporate agent and Dave, my hubby who everyone likes “on sight.”

Dave is the guy who strolled through Heathrow’s security detail without earning even a second-glance from the guards, meanwhile, I had to remove my shoes, which I admit that when the border official said, “your shoes” to me in that stern voice, I mistook her intention and replied, “Oh, do you like them? I got them in Canada – they’re Skechers. They’re great, although I really should have worn my Merrills cause they’re better for long hikes through airports.” Apparently, she was not interested in their retail history.

But I drift from my point, which is that I do not possess “on-sight likability,” making all ventures into police or foreign-government premises tricky business.

It is a serious handicap.

To prevent the dreaded sweat-syndrome, I dressed in extremely light summer clothing, such that by the time I made the walk to the police station in the brisk morning air, I could no longer feel my hands. Excellent.

However, I arrived 15 minutes before opening so I settled down on an inside staircase with a book, not realizing that sunlight was pouring in through a window above me. Within minutes, the sun’s amplified warmth, coupled with an anxiety-related hot-flash did its work. I was mopping my brow when the police station door opened.

I mumbled my way through in French, whereupon the clerk informed me I belonged in the office one-flight-up. Upstairs, the second clerk looked at me with a deadpan-bordering-on-openly-hostile expression.  I knew my unlikability-ness was oozing into the room, but there was nothing I could do about it. She sent me to the back of the line to wait for the only English-speaking clerk.

I panicked and phoned Dave, in the hopes that I could absorb some of his charm via the wireless. It worked! When I saw the third clerk, she recognized our names and handed over our residency cards.

Witness the awesome power of Dave’s likability – he doesn’t even have to be in the room to make it work.

This ends our bureaucratic visa-scramble until next year, when we have to re-apply.

***The no-sweat policy, however, did not apply to Central Saanich’s police station, because I have gotten lost several times in that outlying municipality of farmlands. Many times, Central Saanich’s media officer had to “talk me down” over the cell phone, giving me step-by-step directions to get to the station. It is to her credit that she never directed me to Sooke, which she easily could have done. I would never have known.

Sky-High Dining

April 16 – the eve of our 29th wedding anniversary seemed like a good time to spend $25.50 a plate on pasta that we could buy at Wal-Mart for $1.19 a can.

Hotel Alpenruhs patio eatery. Not so bad.

I may have said that out loud as we surveyed the menu  board at Hotel Alpenruh, the first restaurant/outdoor cafe to meet us as we staggered off the Lauterbrunnen gondola that swings up a 1,600-foot mountainside cliff in only five minutes.  This is the problem with living/travelling in Europe – I assume no one else understands English, but judging by our waitress’ demeanor, it seems I may have been wrong about that.

I was also wrong about the canned ravioli remark – unless Chef Boyardee has issued a cashew & wild garlic ravioli since we left North America.

We took an outdoor seat at Alpenruh’s open cafe, although a biting mountain wind was edging out the warm afternoon sun, a cold that was soon to be eclipsed by our waitress, who, as I mentioned earlier, may have heard my snarky remarks. We ordered the cashew/garlic ravioli (only $18!), but she put an end to that, saying that it would take a special request to the chef, which we found odd, considering that it was on their billboard.

The view from the cafe.

The other view from the cafe. As you can see, the neighbourhood is a little rough.

She pointed us to the table menu that strictly observed certain serving hours for certain meals, so she said, but we couldn’t find anything to that effect in print. We were on a cliff, though, and in no position to make a fuss, so we ordered the $25.50 truffle ravioli. We were not overly upset about this, having long wanted to taste Europe’s legendary truffle, which is really just a clump of fungus, exactly what we’ve come to expect from the continent that turned snail-eating into an art.

Truffle ravioli at Alpenruh Hotel, Murren, Switzerland.

Later, much much later, two plates of ravioli arrived, tossed in olive oil, sprinkled with wrinkly dried french beans and apple wedges that appear to have been lightly sautéed.

It was worth the wait, the snotty waitress and the high-altitude price. The pasta was cooked to that delicate point where it had just passed al dente, and the truffle filling’s flavour was restrained but savoury enough to lead to indelicate shoveling motions at the table.

The food and the view were the only highlights. The service was, as already mentioned, substandard, and hygiene did not appear high on the restaurant’s list.

The cafe tables were covered in orange “Griptex” kitchen shelf liner (found at all fine Wal-Mart stores for about $8 a roll), which was apparently left to compost as is, ie. it had not been cleaned or changed that week, judging by several unidentified black objects that we hoped were not the remnants of bird droppings or mouse scat (presumably, the mice get to dine on the tables after the human patrons have vacated the premises).

The cutlery, however, was weighty, sparkly and very posh, except that the waitress put it down on that orange table covering. Ugh.

The dessert menu was primarily made up of ice cream and sorbet, some served with rum and other liquors, however, we didn’t test any as we couldn’t be sure it would be served before the last train out (four hours later).

Note: Yes, I’m cheating. This entry should be on the recipe/restaurant review page. This is what happens when a journalist gets free of editors. She’s inclined to do as she pleases, even if it breaks the rules regarding placing certain topics in their corresponding sections.

Second note: Murren, a village almost wholly made up of dark-wooded chalets, hotels and a few ski shops, has plenty of eateries, so on our return trip, we won’t have to put up with Alpenruh, but we just might. It has almost the best views in town. The other restaurant we checked out listed horse cuts, a meat I am not going to risk eating again, not to mention its lunch menu prices ranged at around $35 per plate. Ouch.

What’s wrong with Switzerland

This is not me. Judging by the dozens of paragliders floating over the valley, the Interlaken is an excellent place to catch an updraft. Dave spotted one glider just jump up on a mountain side and take off. Not jump "off," just jump "up." The laws of physics and gravity appear to be suspended in Switzerland.

What’s wrong with Switzerland is that it has mountain peaks that stand on tiptoe at over 13,000 feet above sea level. I’m only five feet above sea level. You can see how scary the Alps can be for someone like me.

We decided to check out (not go up) some of those mountain heights in Switzerland’s famous Interlaken region. After two hours of travel via Swiss Rail for the return-ticket price of $80 for two of us, we arrived at the valley floor of Lauterbrunnen, a quaint Swiss village surrounded by quaint Swiss farmyards that looked very much like Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula, except where the peninsula is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, the Lauterbrunnen valley is surrounded by mountains.

Dave calls this a “material” difference.

Lauterbrunnen cemetery - placed suspiciously close to Lauterbrunnen gondola

We began what appeared to be an aimless stroll by admiring the Lauterbrunnen cemetery, without argument the tidiest, least-scary graveyard I’ve ever seen, except that only six kilometres away is what I call the Gotten Himmel gondola ride, a five-minute 1,600-foot sweep up from the valley-floor to the mountain-clinging village of Gimmelwald (4,593-feet).

Gotten Himmel means “God in Heaven” and certainly my mind was on spiritual matters, being so close to the resting place of the dead and the gondola, an efficient agent of death if ever I saw one.

The enchanting stroll along the Lauterbrunnen valley, that ends at Recipe for Death gondola ride.

I started to climb the wrought iron fence into the cemetery, reasoning that I might as well just lie down and take root, rather than go through the heart-stopping gondola ride, but Dave convinced me we would just walk the valley and see its famous 10 waterfalls. That the gondola was at the end of the valley and we were walking in its direction did not mean we had to get on it.

The sun was hot, the views hypnotic and the walk long, so that by the time we arrived at the gondola site, I had temporarily lost my mind, which is the only explanation for how I found myself standing in line with a gondola ticket in hand.

I made the ride, without screaming, which proves that living-in-denial is the roadway to achievement, even a modest achievement such as getting through five-minutes of this (click to see 54-second clip of end of ride).

More to follow, including a mountain-side restaurant review.

Murrenbach waterfall plunges 417 feet to valley floor. Lauterbrunnen is a classic glacial valley with near vertical cliffs on both sides.

Two weeks, more or less

Two weeks in Switzerland: Two weeks of discovering new cheese, new chocolates, new shoe stores (and shoe prices!). Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

They have homeless people, but not in near as many numbers as North American cities. As in all things to do with homeless populations, numbers are extremely difficult to count. One 1980 U.N. survey put the number of Swiss homeless at 2,400, but that figure is 30 years old. Switzerland’s overall population in 2009 was  7.7 million: 

Biel homeless man has worn garbage-bag shoes for the past two weeks, even in the blistering heat.

They love Justin Bieber (who, by the way, has a strong Winnipeg connection): 

Justin Bieber images are everywhere, such as on this junior sheet set at a local department store. His visage outnumbers that of Obama, Clinton (either one), Michael Jackson, the Beatles and anyone running in Canadas current federal election.

They are cane-enabled (get it: Cain’n Abel  – sorry, couldn’t stop myself). : 

Elders favour canes over walkers. Even young people sport these arm-brace-style canes, making us wonder if polio races through the Swiss.

They view sidewalks and roadways as near-equals: 

They park, and occasionally drive, on sidewalks.... not as often as the Spanish, but a lot more than North Americans.

They smoke, a lot:

One in four smoke, according to Switzerlands Federal Health Office. In both Canada and the U.S., one in five smoke. Despite the 25 per cent rate given by the Swiss government, the number of smokers looks higher on the street where the Swiss smoke as they walk, juggle babies, lounge in street cafes. Smoke is blowing into our suite as I write this as my Italian neighbour takes to the balcony for her morning fix.


Their public art holds some surprises: 

Despite their reputation for attention to detail, their take on public art would make North American insurers and art/park commission managers gasp. These wrought-iron statues could inflict fatal wounds if someone tripped into one. Note: Dave does not let me twirl anywhere near these.

Just in case you dont quite see it: The arms on this prone statue are about two inches thick and maybe two feet long - would plunge through a chest wall or eye socket quite easily. Eeeew.


Travel travails continued


Arc de Triomphe, commissioned by Napoleon in 1806, and new symbol of our goal to get to Paris. Will we triumph? In a side note: We have several Spanish coins dated to 1802 with a Napoleonic visage on them. Must remember to get them appraised.

As I made my way through throngs of commuter passengers at Biel’s train station, a middle-aged man in a tan jacket and faded denims unzipped in the train square and let’er rip.

I’ve lived in Spain, so I’ve seen public urination before – usually on the side of the highway where the Spanish men do not give passersby the courtesy of turning their backs to the road as they empty their bladders.

A location for public urination? According to one fellow, it is. Yuk.

This fellow, who stared straight ahead and otherwise appeared sober, had opted for what must be Biel’s  most public venue for such a private act. It was only 6:30 p.m., still broad daylight and the square was jammed.

Maybe he had just come off a day of dealing with a cantankerous travel website, or perhaps he had just discovered his train ticket cost double what he expected.

So I walked on by, noticing that no one else seemed to notice or care much about Mr. Public Urination.

A few minutes later, after meeting Dave inside, we/I learned our train costs will be over $500, according to a different booking agent than the one who earlier in the week had quoted $260. The agents had a good belly laugh when we mentioned the $260 quote.

Because we are Canadians, we did not shout or make any display. We simply groaned inwardly as we felt our stomach ulcers dig in deeper.

At that point, we were still in recovery from the lastminute.com fiasco and it seemed that as Tuscany was for Seinfeld, so Paris would be for us (click here to find out what I’m talking about). It has become our “white whale.” We must get there, and so we ponied up the cash, realizing that we are already at over $1,000 for two days in that famed city.

It goes a little over budget for we frugal types, but we are rapidly losing the ability to care … at least about that. I’d still rather men chose more discreet locations to relieve themselves.  After all, this isn’t Spain.

Postscript: And now a well-traveled friend warns us to stay away from Paris over Easter.  Cue the Jaws theme music.

Lastminute.com – A frugal traveler’s Best Friend, or the Devil Incarnate?

Is there an experience more invigorating than realizing you’ve just spent $350 on something that will give you nothing?

I just want to see the Eiffel Tower - why does it have to be so difficult?

I don’t think so. I’m fresh off 30 minutes with lastminute.com, a United Kingdom-based travel-booking website and I’m sure my blood pressure is up, my heart rate climbing into the upper reaches of the aerobic zone and all the vessels in my head are ballooning into aneurism-blowing dimensions.

We’ve run into trouble getting  a hotel in Paris for the Easter weekend. It appeared we had one booked, but that booking was made in error and has been snapped back from us with the same pinching sensation of getting clipped with an elastic band.

I moved on to check out hotels at lastminute.com – I put in our dates – April 22 and 23 and up came a list of hotels including “secret hotels.” I should know better than to play with something so dubiously titled, but after checking the cancellation policy, decided to take a risk. It looked like the worse that would happen is I’d lose about $40 Cdn.

The idea behind the “secret hotel”  is that the hotel is so high-end that it doesn’t want anyone to know it engages in this last-minute whack-down-of-prices. You only get the name and address after you’ve paid up.

Surprisingly, this is not the part of my exchange with lastminute.com to go wrong. The hotel, the Westin Hotel de Vendome (no secrets here on hobonotes.com), is indeed an upscale establishment with bottom prices at $430 a night. I would have paid $175 – not bad.

The problem was that  I assumed entering the dates April 22 and 23 ensured that only hotels with those dates available would come up. Not so.

Lastminute.com spit out hotels with different dates – dates that I did not look at because of my assumption, and so at the very last phase of the purchase, the website informed me that I had just booked April 13 to 15 at the Hotel de Vendome.

I checked my watch. Today is April 13. What the what!?

I tried to get through to lastminute.com’s customer service – the privilege of calling them is charged to the customer, ie. me, at 10p -the “p” standing for pence or maybe 10 pounds per minute, which is really frustrating, because I don’t even know how much 10 pence actually is. Am I signing away my vital organs? Or just paying a penny or two?

When I finally got through lastminute.com’s multiple-layered phone system (press 1 for new bookings, 2 for existing bookings – even though I had dialed a number that was listed as specifically for existing books – remember I’m paying for every minute of the recorded system), I finally get through to a nice woman with an East Indian accent, who for all I know is in Mumbai.

Not to complain about that – it’s the way of the world these days. I’m just making the observation. I will complain about it later.

She goes into what is obviously a scripted patter about lastminute.com’s policies, about 80-pence-or-pounds into it, I say, “I’m paying for the privilege of being bamboozled, just tell me straight up: Can I cancel? Can I change dates, yes or no?”

She went to Script page no. 2, at which I interrupted her again and said, I just need to know, can I cancel or switch?”

Flip to Script page no. 3, and I said, “I get it. I can’t cancel, but you’d rather I pay more of this per-minute rate to hear it.”

She put me on hold while she called the hotel. 40-pence-or-pounds later, she came back to tell me they had agreed to cancel the booking without any charges. Apparently, the refund will show up on my credit card account in 7 to 10 days, which brings me to another complaint.

Why can they take my money in a nano-second, but take more than a week to hand it back?

So in the end, lastminute.com did the right thing, so I can’t say for sure they are the Devil Incarnate, but  I can say that providing different booking dates than those entered in the search is definitely misleading.

Postscript: I’ve had an hour and two chocolate yogurts to calm down, and so in the final analysis, I have to give lastminute.com the thumbs up for cancelling the reservation. I also received an email confirmation of this from another customer service rep within that hour, which was reassuring.

Making friends fast

As in so many places in the world, it is in Switzerland: It’s easy to make friends when it appears you’re carrying a 24-pack of beer.

This isn’t to say the quality of friends is that which your mother would approve whole-heartedly, but friends all the same.

It started when I gave  into my very North-American vice and picked up a 24-case of Coke Zero for about $13 – quite a bit more than in Canada, but as I said, it’s a vice and today I am missing a few of those.  With the case propped atop my right shoulder, I made the short walk back to our hotel.

Swiss soldier on the look-out for beer.

I didn’t get there before I heard two men shouting at me in German from a car waiting at a red light. The two, dressed in army fatigues  were waving me over enthusiastically, asking me to spare a beer or two for a soldier.  I look German, so I got away with laughing derisively at them before they drove away, all smiles, but no beer (or Coke).

The hotel manager, Reiner, and our helpful front desk clerk Daniela were on their break by the side of our hotel, and as I approached, their wide smiles and exultations expressed their mistaken belief that I was carrying some brewskies. Their faces melted in dismay when I came near enough they could identify the Coke Zero.

The dismay turned into shock when I told them that a. I’ve never carried a 24 of beer and b. generally, speaking I avoid alcohol.

“How can you live this way, how can you be happy?” they demanded to know.

“In wine is a cure for all things,” Daniela said, ” You don’t need vitamins, just wine.”

I can’t say that I agree  – too many tragedies, traffic fatalities, high levels of stupidity start with the bottle, but I’ve got nothing against the occasional glass so I promised to test Swiss wine at the coming autumn festivals.

In the meantime, Dave is spending his evenings reading to me from our favorite travel guru Rick Steves’ guide book, suggesting that this weekend we head up to one of Switzerland’s mountain-peak chalets where sixty beds are jammed into a four-bedroom house with shared baths, but the views are spectacular.

“Just pretend I’m Leslie,” I say.

Leslie is an Atlanta friend of ours who emancipated me from all socially induced pretense back in 1996 when she said to me, “Let’s not pretend that I will ever cook anything,” and “Camping? Never.”

Switzerland's famous Interlake region

Up to that point, I was under the delusion that a love of camping held some mystical virtue and cooking was a necessity, but happily Leslie showed me another way, and that way started with a firm  “No” to crazy ideas that would have me doing either, or anything even remotely resembling such. That includes booking into hostel-style accommodation.

So, no. We are not heading up to any mountain peaks this weekend, but instead will enjoy a train ride through the mountain range’s valleys. Much more civilized.

The Swiss, blowing stuff up “real good.”

We watched a snowman’s head explode last night, while horsemen galloped around it in circles, the horses apparently bored with the whole thing.

The Swiss kick old-man winter's behind.

We actually watched it on television, the event having taken place in Zürich, a 90-minute train ride away. Every spring the Swiss build a huge monument of sticks, doused in some kind of fuel (judging by the orange tint of the flames), topped with a fake snowman packed with explosives to herald the end of winter and the start of spring.

It comes with a parade and all the pomp associated with a royal procession – costumes, marching bands, horses, streets jammed with onlookers, politicians lining up at the microphone.

This strikes us as something the Spanish would do – they love incendiary events over there – but seemed out-of-keeping with the orderly Swiss.  You can see the 2008 burning by clicking  here.

Last night’s exploding-snowman-head didn’t look safe at all as giant chunks of the snowman flew off in random directions. It was very much like my boys playing with firecrackers, lighting up their little plastic soldiers, only on a grander scale. One expected a pack of Swiss Mommas to shout from the balconies, “Stop that! Don’t make me come down there!”

It’s an odd thing to watch – on the one hand, you have to hand it to the Swiss for celebrating getting through another winter. On the other hand, it’s just a little too close to burning people at the stake, a practice  Europeans are known to have excelled at and that migrated to North American (Salem witch trials, anyone?). Sorry to have brought up some unpleasant history.

But Switzerland winters are nothing like that on the Canadian prairies, where similar snowman burning would be a good idea, although, to be a reliable marker of the end of winter, it would have to be held in June.

 

Luscious Lucerne

Saturday we took the 90-minute train ride east to Lucerne, past lush, meticulously kept pastures, rolling hills, quaint farms with cows lolling about, a trip made sweeter because we now have our Swiss Rail resident half-price cards.

It looks like a great deal, bringing the price for  two return tickets down to $78. We were pretty pleased with that until we realized that we were travelling only 48 miles – what the heck? That’s like a $1.50 a mile.

Swiss comedians? Or the Swiss version of a chain gang (ie. not breaking rocks, just colouring on them).

We arrived in Lucerne to discover the city in the throes of an international comedy festival called “Fumetto” – at least, that was the explanation we got for the men in orange suits studiously scratching a chalk path into one of the cobblestone squares, which didn’t look funny at all, but I’m sure something hilarious was about to happen. We had our doubts, because orange suits are prison gear back in the U.S., so we were suspicious this was the Swiss version of a prison-work program.

We checked out a kitchen store where laundry bags sold for $99 and shoe stores, at one of which I found a pair of  loafers priced at $269… others were priced higher, but my brain could not compute such numbers well enough to recall them now.

Lucerne is, after all, Switzerland’s Monaco, and the well-heeled were in ostentatious abundance from stylish couples strolling the lakeside promenade to high-end sports cars inching through narrow cobblestone streets that until their arrival, we thought were pedestrian-only. Maybe the rules are different for those driving Bugattis and Lamborghinis.

Even the McDonalds restaurant was high-end with vintage ceiling tiles, orange cube leather seating and a McCafe pastry bar. Ooo la la! It was a beautiful city. I’ll let the photos speak for it. Click on photos to get a larger version.

At a swank chocolate shop called Merkor - I think it translates into "No chocolate under $40"

About half of the chocolate in Merkor's main showcase, and I do mean "showcase." The word "display" just doesn't quite make it.

Lucerne's waterfront. Not so bad.

The inside of Lucerne's Jesuit Church. Very white. Very bright.

Lucerne. Very pretty.

Lunch for the uber-rich - also, where they are on display for gawkers like us.

 

Many of Lucerne's Old Town buildings sport frescos (murals) - this one depicts the city's Mardi Gras celebrations.

A wall mural depicting the building's former street level cafe-owners in Mardi Gras celebrations.

Lucerne has two homeless men. We found them both. It's noteworthy that this man's wardrobe included a colour (red/orange pepper) that matched many park benches, and that is also favored among the rich (see other photos). Even Lucerne's homeless fall under the dictates of fashion.

The photo quality is not very good, but this stylish 8-10-year-old girl's pic is worth posting - we saw fashion-conscious kiddies everywhere. What is this? France?

A woman parading her control over her husband on Lucerne's Promenade - his attire matches hers right down to his shoes. Somebody help this guy.

View over Lucerne Lake with the Alps in the background. This body of water is also called Vierwaldstattersee. Yes, it is.

Cafeteria Lunch

This photo may not be able to capture how steep this ride was, but it was REALLY steep and you can tell that by how I used all-caps for the word "really."

A funicar is the acrophobe’s answer to mountain-scooting gondolas – a ground-hugging on-the-rails ride up the steep limestone Jura mountains that border Biel/Bienne.

I’ve already mocked the funicar, also called funicular, once, saying that it is as impressive as a stroll up the mountainside at our Vancouver Island home, that is to say, not impressive at all. Turns out I was wrong about that. It is a lot steeper and probably a lot higher.

As with all endeavors, we had to leap over the language hurdle when purchasing our ticket at the automated kiosk, which to our delight had a button that said “English,” but when Dave pressed it,  a display came up that read  “English is not enabled on this unit.”  We hope the funicular engineers had a good belly laugh at us from the safety of a remote control booth.  Eventually, we sorted it out and boarded the funicar.

The cafeteria decor that fooled us into thinking we were about to get an affordable lunch. Not a FREE lunch, just an affordable one.

The Lac Biel valley opened beneath us as the car made its silent climb up the mountainside, a spectacular view if you’re not afraid of heights and are able to look down without having the urge to vomit.

At the top, we found what appeared to be a campus cafeteria. At last, a cheap lunch, we thought – and looked forward to a respite from Switzerland’s exorbitantly expensive restaurants that charge about twice that back home.

We loaded up our trays with a vegetarian lunch that included what appeared to be a fried half-pound of white cheese.  I have waited all my life for just such a meal where a glob of cheese is unencumbered by a beef patty, bun, or egg.

It would be nice to say it was everything I hoped, but halfway through I had to stop eating – the sound of my arteries squeaking as they congealed was too much for me.

But I get ahead of myself: At the till, the cashier gave Dave the price, that I hopefully repeated back “Vingt-sept?”  She tapped the cash display. $37. Dave suspects cash registers are equipped with an “English price” button, something special for we tourists.

We took our lunch trays to the tables outside overlooking Biel/Bienne and figured it may be the most expensive cafeteria meal ever, but if one takes the view into account, the price may not be so bad.

Fine cafeteria dining a la Suisse!

Tomorrow: Lucerne

Walking

When a strange man tells a 52-year-old woman her beauty shines with the warmth of the sun, it’s time to cross the street and head for home.

He might have spotted me when I pulled out the tourist map at the canal bridge, the spot where I completely lost my bearings. Reading a map on the street is about as stupid a thing as a woman walking alone can do, especially when it’s one of those brightly coloured tourist maps. I might as well have fastened a sign to my head with “Good Canadian Passport & Credit Cards Here.”

He came alongside at the red light where Dr. Schneiderstrasse and Aarbergstreasse meet, making his compliment there. The light changed and shoulder-to-shoulder, he stayed with me as he jabbered on, his eyes roving up and down and then to  my knapsack. He swiveled his head around: Checking for traffic? Or for witnesses?

There were people across the street waiting for the light, but I realized that they were it – as soon as they crossed and went past me and this unwelcome shadow, we would be alone.

I’m like an Alzheimer’s patient when I go out for a stroll, wandering until I’m in the wrong neighbourhood, like when two fish-netted hookers in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside had to show me the way out.

As the stranger and I met up with the gaggle, I turned in my tracks and joined them. I glanced back and saw the man, his scalp visible through the stripes of his slicked-back hair, walking quickly up the road, his face turned toward me, his teeth showing in a broad grin.

Watch your language

French for Dummies, which I am.

Just when I think I’m making headway on this French language thing, I run into a stream of Spanish, ripping my brain right back to Madrid 1999.

We lived in Madrid for about 18 months, over which I acquired a basic level of Spanish. Now that I’m living in Switzerland and trying to adopt French, Spanish words and phrases fling off my tongue with frightening ease.

This could fool me into believing I’ve achieved new heights of fluency in Spanish, but only because there are no Spaniards or Spanish-speakers around to offer their opinions/horrified glares.

Until this morning, that is. As I passed a housekeeper in the hotel hallway, I said hello in French, and then discovered she’s Portuguese. We tripped into a Spanish/Portuguese conversation from which I am still recovering.  I have no idea what I really told her, but I’m pretty sure she gave me a detailed analysis on the hotel’s cleaning schedule.

At the Coop (pronounced cop) grocery store this morning, the cashier asked if I preferred to speak in German or French. I said nine-sprechzeny doich und je ne say pas parl francay (I’ll spell it how I like, thank you), whereupon she surmised that Italian was my language of choice and let fly with a wonderful opera of words that were as discernible to me as Arabic, but it sounded lovely.

I don’t know if I’m ever going to get this multilingual thing wrestled to the ground, although I do love elbowing my way through crowds saying “Scuzay,” which is what the Italians around here spit out as though they are saying “scram.”

And, as I walk through Biel’s streets and shops eavesdropping on French conversations so as to pick up the local accent, I’m also absorbing some German – and worse yet, my English is starting to decay.

All that aside, the Swiss have an admirable tolerance for the tongue-tied. They smile, they coach, they do their best to leave no one behind in conversation. I have yet to see any language-related temper tantrums or snubs.

In the meantime, I am in terror of running into the Portuguese housekeeper again. For all I know, I invited her to be our guest at our Ontario cottage this summer.

Why is moving so exhausting?

Whether packing up two giant suitcases and shuffling them a matter of a 100 metres of so falls under the classication of “moving,” I do not know, but I know I am getting tired of moving, even if they are micro-moves.

How did we get this way? Here is how:

Before arriving in Switzerland, we had emailed back-and-forth with the hotel about their long-stay suites  that had been recently renovated and did not require a lease. Leases are an issue when one arrives without a residency card, but one cannot get a residency card without a lease/permanent address. This Catch-22 is a modern form of torture that leaves no outward bruising.

Our previous apartment.

Our new apartment.

But when we arrived, the suites the agent showed us  were nothing like the ones on the website.

We shrugged.  We’ve been overseas before and cheating, fooling and/or overcharging North Americans is standard, so we were just glad to get a place with hot water.

The city-street view outside our previous apartment. It is a popular ambulance/emergency route.

Several nights sleeping by the corner of a downtown intersection, however, wore on us, so I returned to the hotel desk to ask if there were any other suites. Daniela, the front desk clerk, said yes, and then showed me two absolutely fabulous suites that matched up with the website photos we had seen from Canada.

How can this discrepancy be explained?

The two suites – the noisy one we were in and the courtyard one I quickly snapped up yesterday are in the same building, owned by the same company, however, the ugly ones are sub-leased to a rental company. Our corporate rep mixed up the two.

Our employer had already signed a long-stay lease with the ugly-apartment agency – were we trapped?

Happily not. Our corporate rep, who is redeeming the reputation of bureaucrats everywhere, quickly negotiated a solution and in the space of 45 minutes we moved to the new suite.

Our snazzy little kitchenette with some high-end appliances I do not understand, but I love them all the same.

Daniela, the front desk clerk, is a wonder. She came over after her shift, dressed in her street clothes and ready to head home, but insisted on helping me move, then refused to take a tip.

I am beginning to think the Swiss are practically perfect in every way.

This weekend we head for Lucerne. Or Lausanne. I’m not sure which.

How friendly are the Swiss?

When the woman took a seat across from us on the train ride back from Murten, she looked normal.

She had come on with a pack of senior citizens, all rattling in lively conversation. She hovered over some people who we thought must be old friends, clutching about half-dozen twigs in her hand. They were only about two feet long – too short for basket-weaving.

Snug alleyway in Murten.

She then eyed our cluster of seats, flopped down with an exaggerated gasp of exhaustion, and appraised us silently with her enormous brown eyes. Her chin-length hair was auburn brown and her posture suggested she was fit, but she had bags under her eyes and what looked like a patch of skin cancer on her cheek – she could have been 55 or 80.

She addressed us in German, then raised her eyebrows at our fumbling response: “No German,” not meaning that there are no Germans, or that we refuse to associate with Germans, much less attempt the language.  She leaned closer, waved at the bundle of twigs and said in English,  “I put sticks  in and get wine. You know, sticks, water.”

No, we didn’t know, but we were sitting knee-to-knee within grabbing distance so we nodded politely and mentally calculated how long to the next train stop.

Was she insane? Would she pinch one of us by the arm and force more alcohol-related recipes on us?

As she pressed us into conversation with her not-totally-broken, but not quite all-there-English, we tried to not look like we were thinking about the distance to the next train station, but it didn’t work. She somehow deduced that our estimation of her mental faculties was not as it should be, even though neither of us gave into the rising urge to claw madly at the stop-buttons and demand the train doors open (we had already done that earlier on the ride into Murten).

She returned to the wine-twig topic and elaborated until her meaning became clear: That she would stick the twigs (dried vines) in the ground, water them, and eventually they would take root, produce grapes and then wine. She was not expecting to get wine from them that evening.

Swiss trains are spotless, their schedules and routes relatively easy to understand, but be ready for a sociable time as the Swiss love to chat.

Her mental stability established, we relaxed.

We have seen signs of such friendliness before. The day earlier,  in a grocery store line-up  a woman discerned our foreign-ness and invited us on a boat trip over Lake Biel. Suspicious North Americans that we are, we politely evaded the question, but we can’t help noticing that overall the Swiss are extraordinarily friendly.

Either that, or they are all stalkers-in-waiting. We shall see.

What’s in a name? Murten or Morat?

The view from Murten/Morat's castle ramparts where on June 22, 1476, 2,000 Murtonians/Moratians beat 20,000 invading French back into the lake, causing many of the armor-clad French to drown. The townspeople were aided by about 10,000 neighbours. This battle is considered seminal to the creation of the Swiss Union. Note: The French were hungover from partying the night before. True story. Also of note: The Swiss are famous for their mercenary soldiers. By this we conclude that it is not the legendary Swiss neutrality that protects against foreign invasion, but Swiss ferocity.

It began with us sprinting through the train much to the horror of our fellow passengers, but it wasn’t really our fault. We blame multiculturalism and its child, multilingualism.

In Canada, multilingualism earns high respect, but here in Europe it leads to high-annoyance. My international readers will correct me if I’m wrong, but even the multilingual Swiss can have trouble clearing language hurdles.***

As an example, the lease negotiations between Dave’s corporate rep and our apartment’s leasing agent were conducted in English, although they both spoke French and German. So why English? Because it was their strongest common language and to use the descriptor “strongest” is stretching it.

We, the mute, listened as they waffled back and forth in three not-very-good languages, hearing one question spawn the response “yes” at one moment and “no” in the next. Consequently, the terms of our lease are a mystery to us.

It brought back memories of my multilingual European father who back in the early 1960s decided we would speak English only, saying that it was better to be eloquent in one language than an idiot in many.

Before you write your angry letters, let me say I know there are people out there who are masters in many languages. I just have not run into many yet.

But I drift from my topic, which is Murten/Morat and how we got lost trying to get there. I don’t drift too far, though, as language formed the foundation for our trouble.

Medieval castle ramparts in Murten/Morat.

We got on the right train, heading in the right direction. As Biel fell behind us and the Swiss countryside opened up, we paid attention to town signs and watched the villages for castle ramparts and ancient churches – the attractions that were bringing us to Murten.

After what seemed a reasonable interval, we began to worry that we had missed our stop.

I recalled hearing the train’s recorded announcement heralding “Morat,” which was not on the map or in the train schedule. As it turns out, Morat is the French name for Murten.

We learned this later – that Swiss villages/towns frequently have both German and French names, but for some reason hidden in Swiss Rail’s corporate headquarters, they switch languages in a sporadic manner. Maybe it prevents invasion from foreign armies, or too many tourists amassing at any single point.

In any case, that is how we missed our stop.

Looking out from Cressier's rail station, Switzerland. April 2011. Clearly, we were in trouble.

We got out at Cressier, which by Swiss standards is absolute Heck as you can see by this photo (right), and then feared that this being a Sunday, there might not be a train for hours. Stuck in Cressier! Switzerland’s “Brugge.”

We were wrong about that and with some help, soon boarded a train returning to Murten.

But our travel-nerves were jangled, so we watched anxiously for signs of Murten – or Morat, call it what you want cause that’s what the Swiss do –  and the minute we saw something that remotely resembled the pictures in our guidebook, we got on our feet. The train came to a stop, but the doors wouldn’t open. We don’t know how trains work here, so we sprinted in a frantic manner through the cars looking for an open door, like rats stuck in a  trap.

One of us may have shouted, “Stop the train! Let us out, let us out, we want to go to Murten,” but I’m not saying who. At that point, a passenger said, “We’re not there yet.”

It is comforting to know that we gave our fellow passengers something to laugh about on that otherwise quiet ride. It is also comforting to know that we will never see any of those people again.

As it happened, the doors did not open because we weren’t actually at a station yet. If we had gotten out, we would have plunged down a steep incline. So sorry to have missed that.

By the way, we have also learned that the buttons we thought were for opening doors were actually emergency-stop buttons.

Eventually, we found our way to Murten-Morat, a charming medieval village by any name at all.

***This is a rant, and so is not bound by logic. If my Dad had decided to school us in European languages, our little sprint could have been averted. But where would be the fun in that?

A few things I’ve noticed in Biel

 

A secondary canal in Biel. Locals here think this town is trash, but I don't see anything wrong with it.

It is our first Monday in Switzerland and Dave’s first full day at work, and so now we settle into whatever normal looks like for our time here.

 

Of course, there is no “normal” yet – there’s too much we don’t know about this country, mostly because we are arrogant Anglophones and not very good with the local languages, although, I am improving.

I managed to tell a shopkeeper her wares were too expensive (tres cher), but only for today  (seulement pour aujourd’hui) because I had topped out my shopping budget and I would be back (retourner moi – although, I’m not sure about this particular phrase, maybe it is retournez moi).

No one has slapped me or thrown out onto the street, so I suppose my French is not so bad.

Shoes, shoes, shoes and more shoes.

I’ve also discovered that  European arrogance about fashion is well-deserved. Ordinary shops here carry fascinating clothes – some too fascinating for me, and others that are very forgiving for my middle-aged figure.

And for reasons I cannot yet unearth, shoe stores are everywhere, even in the farmers market.

Farmers market shoe sales. Go figure.

Within a few blocks of our home are three large grocery stores, making downtown living very easy. To put that in perspective for Victorians, imagine seeing a Safeway at Broughton, Fort and Pandora, or for Winnipeggers, grocery stores at Portage, Donald and Hargrave.

The police here are invisible. Where Victoria Police can be seen biking down Wharf  Street, Saanich Police cruising down Tillicum, and the RCMP just about anywhere at any time, we’ve only seen the Swiss police on the streets twice – at the Tamil demonstration in Bern and a few blocks away corralling an intoxicated man outside a grocery store.*

I don’t know what this means – if Switzerland has low crime rates or underfunded police departments, but I am not going to think about that. I am going to think about how to explain how we got lost on the train ride to Murten, which I plan to write about tomorrow.

* It may look odd that I list three police departments when describing Victoria, B.C.’s policing, but that is what there is. Victoria-regional law enforcement is made up of multiple municipal forces.

Bern, pronounced Behhhrrn

Telling any Swiss person that we were travelling to Bern (burn) produced puzzled frowns. Now we know why. We were saying it all wrong. We would feel bad about this, but how can the Swiss expect us to grasp place-pronunciation when they themselves can’t make up their minds what to call anything.

Bern: This clock tower was once a gate in the town ramparts, however, the city outgrew its boundaries twice.

We are sitting on a French-German cusp, and to keep everyone happy, every place has both a French and German name, such as our current place of residence Biel-Bienne.  Murten is also Morat. All along the train tracks are villages and towns with German names such as Mongbratzverstenspiel and a corresponding French name that doesn’t bear any resemblance to the German counterpart, such as Le Bleu. Okay, I just made up both those names, but if I had the strength to look at a map, I could pull out a few excellent examples.

Bern, happily, seems to run along on a single name, perhaps because it is the nation’s capital and they can’t afford to have a Franco-Germanic squawk about it without creating terrible unrest. I don’t know that. I am still making up things, owing to the linguistic spaghetti forming inside my brain.

Dave seated at Albert Einstein's desk when he worked at the patent office in Bern. Einstein is said to have made his greatest discoveries while living in Bern between 1901 to 1909. Then he left his wife and married his cousin. Ugh. In the meantime, Dave developed several new theories while seated at Einstein's desk.

A 30-minute train ride from Biel (pronounced Beeeel), Bern’s historic quarter covers over a peninsula formed by a bend of the Aare River. It was founded in 1191 and is built of porous green-grey sandstone that, like Spain’s famous golden sandstone buildings, can be scrubbed away rather easily, hence the Swiss have built into the walls to create what they call “arcades,” broad covered walkways drawing pedestrians behind the exterior, theoretically preventing them from touching the sandstone portions.

Of course, the first thing we did on our arrival to Bern was to head to the sandstone walls and scrub away,  just to see if our guidebook was right. It was. I should say, Bernese sandstone is not as delicate as Spanish sandstone. Nor is it as pretty. The entire town is a murky gray-green, but this does not take away from its impressive architecture.

While there, we saw a large group of dark-skinned people filling the town square as Swiss police took positions and parked paddy wagons around.  I approached the Swiss police as though they were Saanich police*, ie. friendly, non-combative and wishing something would happen.

“Is this a concert?” I asked. They laughed heartily while tasering me a few times before throwing me into the paddy wagon.

No, they did not do this, but can you imagine if they did? Now this would be one heck of a blog. In fact, they gave me some evasive answers (a la Victoria police, aka VicPD**), so I did the only thing I could and that was walk into the midst of the protesters and look for someone who did not look away as I approached.

Bern Munster Cathedrale, dating back to 1421. While we were inside, the organist kicked the massive pipe organ into gear. Stunning.

This is what retired reporters do – look for trouble. Although, we don’t know it, because years of angling to get as close as possible to ground-zero of any event has numbed our common sense. We are in a stupor.

I found an affable 35-40-year-old man, rather pudgy who looked like someone I could possibly outrun and asked him “what’s up.” He very kindly explained this was the Swiss Tamil community and they were demonstrating to dissuade the Swiss government from deporting Tamil political refugees, also sometimes known as terrorists.

My sons later scolded me, saying that walking into a large group of black people surrounded by police never ends well, but they are wrong. It ended well, with me unharmed, except for my arm which is a little sore from my  husband dragging me out of the crowd.

Bern is, by the way, highly recommended as a must-see on any trip to Switzerland. It is truly outstanding.

* Saanich Police is one of the many police departments covering the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Their area is generally considered a low-crime one, but I don’t actually know for sure. Because of this, they are constantly getting teased as “soft” by …

** Victoria Police, the department that covers the urban centre of Victoria, which is full of gritty stuff – drugs, homeless, homicides, and the like.

Blisters and Biel

Wearing new sandals on a day that we would walk 16,538 steps was not really such a great idea, but it is too late to talk about it now. All I can do is soak my feet in saltwater, wrap them up and head out for another hike.

Farmer's market in Biel. Endless volumes of fresh produce, happy farmers, hordes of shoppers all packed into a medieval town setting. Not so bad.

I am in Switzerland. It is required I see new things everyday, even if there are blisters on top of my feet. This is true, by the way. I am afflicted with 360-degrees of blisters.

But enough about that. We  began our day by visiting Biel’s allegedly famous Nidaugasse farmer’s market. Nidaugasse may be the name for Biel’s old town, but I am not sure about that, just as I am unsure about everything owing to my cramped German/French language skills.

About 70 farmers and vendors transform Nidaugasse’s sloping grey cobbled streets into avenues of colour, while the air is filled with the aroma of apples and flowers. Maybe living in Switzerland will not be so bad. We stocked up.

Prices were relatively in line with North American farmer market prices, that is to say: They were high. The pain of the pay-up, however, is mitigated by the freshness and flavor of the produce. Real fresh vegetables are pretty much the same anywhere, but every region seems to have something that brings its own something to the table.

Banks of tulips fill the cobblestone streets of Biel's old-town.

In Manitoba, it is the acidic sweetness of giant beefsteak tomatoes, in Northwest Ontario wild blueberries are the jewels, in Victoria it’s Michell’s sweet strawberries and Silver Rill corn, and everything in Georgia. It’s true, Georgia, U.S.A. farmers markets kill in every produce category. Yum. But we’re not in Georgia now. We’re in Switzerland.

I have not determined the stand-out vegetable here, but it may be their giant red-leaf lettuce that is bowling-ball shaped with an apple-crisp base tipped with gossamer burgundy leaves. It tasted as though I had pulled it from the earth only moments before.

We avoided the line-up at the cheese wagon, however, learned later that was a mistake. As Regula, a local Swiss woman told us, “There’s a reason for the line-up,” and that reason is apparently “Corgemont Special” cheese. The market was packed with locals, probably the best indicator of the quality of the offerings. We decided to make the market a Saturday tradition.

After unloading our stuff at our apartment, we hoofed out to the train station for a 30-minute ride to Switzerland’s capital, Bern.  I’ll write more about that later. For now, I have to figure out how to bandage up my feet before today’s trip to Murten, a small medieval town about a 45-minute train ride southwest of Biel.

No phone, no help

We woke up around 2 a.m. Saturday morning to the sound of a man snoring in our apartment.

This was not alarming until my jet-lagged brain realized that Dave was awake. We lay there in the dark, trying to imagine the breathing was coming from anywhere but inside our apartment. It was a weird snore – kind of airy like a woman’s, but too voluminous to be anything but male.

We tiptoed around and decided someone was sleeping up against our apartment door out in the hallway.

Our somewhat austere but very sunny flat.

What ensued was a quiet conversation on who to call about this – Switzerland doesn’t have 9-1-1 – they have some other number that we could not remember, but it didn’t matter because we don’t have a phone line, which raises the little-known fact that foreigners have some difficulty in getting local services – a timely blog topic.

The trouble lies in that a person’s credit rating does not necessarily travel with them, so to the Swiss we are like two unreliable 18-year-olds without any credit history. Utility and rental companies also don’t enter into contracts with foreigners until they have a residency permit, which we are still in the process of obtaining (it will take about 10 more days).

And so we do things differently where we can – for example, Dave’s employer is actually the lease-holder on our apartment. They also send a staffer with us on all official business to translate, negotiate and berate wherever necessary.

In this we are lucky – anyone relocating without the benefit of corporate support is really out on a limb, both linguistically and bureaucratically.

But none of that was helpful as we tried to get back to sleep while a potential drifter snoozed only a few yards away. Finally, I got out my mag-lite flashlight, but not the right one. I left the big prison-guard type one back in Canada. This was my mini-mag – roughly the size of three BIC pens taped together.

Dave on a 16th-Century street in Biel

Not that we had plans to assault anyone, even someone who was sound asleep. Despite the fact the government and utilities treat us like teenagers, we know we are over 50 and there are some things we just won’t do. Also, my mother is still alive and it would worry her to see headlines, “Middle-age Canadians in Melee with Swiss Homeless Man,” or the more likely headlines (because we are the outsiders here) “Hapless homeless man famous for saving cat from tree is attacked by unregistered foreigners.”

I worked in news;  I know this could very easily happen.

Like something out of a sitcom, only without the laughter, we leaned up against the door, brandishing our mini-flashlight and quickly opened the door to find … nothing. And yet, we could still hear the snoring as though someone were standing right next to us.

Further investigation led us to believe it was either the refrigerator venting (fridges here are different – as we learned when living in Spain, they have some strange gas-imbedded coolant system, the details of which I do not understand and therefore readers will be spared any further explanation).

And now it is Saturday morning and we are on our way to the open-air street market, and later to Bern where Dave thinks we will do some sightseeing, but I will, in fact, search for an IKEA.

Easter eggs a la Suisse. They're real eggs - we did not buy any to investigate whether the dye seeps through into the albumen.

In other not-so-exciting-as thinking-a-homeless-man-has-moved-into-the-hallway news:

  • Our luggage arrived Thursday night, the green case looking a little worse for wear. I don’t want to say that anyone stomped on it, but it came back with black scuff marks that look like the bottom of a size 9 boot.  Nevertheless, even though it had obviously been opened, nothing was missing.
  • Dave’s company rep made an appointment with the Swiss Police for us to take our photos and fingerprints. Anyone who has undergone a residency application process will know how shocking that last sentence was – that foreigners would actually be granted the courtesy of an appointment? Seemed too good to be true, but when we showed up about 15 minutes early, we were waved inside immediately. The clerk was polite, efficient and we were out of there without having to register DNA samples in no time, leading me to think pleasant thoughts about the Swiss.

Day Two in Switzerland

I studied French for three months to get ready for living in Switzerland. Apparently, I made a mistake.

Things are looking up. Early this morning as we enjoyed a wonderful breakfast in the Hotel Elite’s posh dining room, a waiter with a heavy accent asked if we would like him to take our photograph together.

I said yes, thinking that he had asked if I wanted a whole pot of coffee at our table. As I said, his accent was heavy. I was pretty enthusiastic about the pot of coffee, which did not materialize. Not so enthusiastic about the picture, which accurately records the previous day’s trauma on my face.

And then I lost the digital photos – some how. Some way. It was wonderful.

After breakfast we trundled down to the Hotel Mercure to meet a representative who would walk us through our setting-up day. We waited around for an apartment rental agent who showed up fashionably attired and fashionably late. As per usual, she forgot to bring the right key to show us the apartment, but then we lucked out and discovered the cleaning staff were inside and the door was open.

Having seen  plans that took months to build fail at a rate of one-per-hour over the course of a single day, we took a run at the apartment as though we were hipsters. We didn’t ask all the important questions, paid almost no attention to any details because hanging over our heads was the biggest question of all: Why bother? If we learned anything this week, it is to be reckless.

Evidence of a parallel universe: Coke Light instead of Diet Coke.

Next came our visit to the police station for our residency papers where a genetically linked version of Attila the Hun in menopausal-woman-form handled our file. I’m not insulting her when I say “menopausal,” because I’m in that state myself, but she looked really bitter about her hormone depletion. Me, I’m too sleep-deprived to be bitter.

As one would expect, she grimly informed us that there were not enough signatures on our apartment lease. She said this in French but I understood her perfectly owing to our parallel menopausal status. I almost congratulated her on the way out. You have to respect a woman who can glance at a bundle of officious documents and pick a needle out of that haystack to make our introduction to Biel just a little more cumbersome.

We walked to the rental office where everyone told us in French that the signature was unattainable because the

Strange little garden-shed villages line the rails between Zurich and Biel.

manager was away. Again, I understood every word. There is something about rejection that I am growing to recognize.

After some verbal rough-housing with our representative, the papers were signed and we went back to the police station where we had a non-menopausal young woman process our application, and things went much better. Nevertheless, while we were told we’d get our permits today, turns out it could take another week or two. Naturally.

On a more personal note, without the benefit of my hair “toolkit,” my hairstyle grows more exciting everyday. Pictures will not be posted.