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. ūüėČ

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.
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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 Рadventurousness 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 Рit 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 Z√ľrich.

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 Рfrom 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 ‚Äď a town just beyond the train tracks. The skis have been a subject of discussion since we saw them (I‚Äôve written about them already ‚Äď 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  Рyes, 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 ‚Äď can you eat lamb‚Äôs 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 РI 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)

_____________________________________________________________________________

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.