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.

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.


How you view terrorist activity is sometimes a matter of proximity

Bahnhof Bern: Services in the neighbourhood of 150,000 passengers a day, centered in a national capital. Yup, this could be a terrorist target.

BERN, SWITZERLAND It sounded like a gun blast at first or a tire-burst. A big one. Then a column of black-grey smoke rose above the passenger train at the Bern train station. The crowd on the platform started and lurched instinctively away from the blast, but no one ran.

The explosion appeared to come from the train the second-track over from the train we had just exited and as is always the case with deciding what to do in an environment where we don’t speak the local language, we watched the crowd to see their reaction.

BBC image of 2004 bombing at Madrid's Atocha train station.

The escalator to an overhead walkway was jammed with people, who all turned to survey the explosion site. On the walkway, people stood and pointed, but no one appeared to panic.

Hmmm, column of black smoke, loud bang – probably nothing wrong. That’s what the crowd reaction told us. We waited for a second explosion, the big one, but it did not come. Thank God.

Bern is Switzerland’s capital city and the train station is massive and densely populated. That makes it a target similar in scale to a London or Japanese subway or Madrid’s Atocha train station. This is what goes through one’s mind when gauging how to react to a loud bang, that and whether searchers will find enough body parts to identify us by DNA and so inform our families of our scattered whereabouts.

Nothing happened afterward, and there was no news of it in the local media, so we can only assume it was some kind of mechanical or electrical gaff, although we didn’t see any mechanics or train staff running toward the site of the blast. The Swiss, they are a calm bunch.

It brought to mind Noam Chomsky and his famous comment in the wake of 9/11 about how Americans should not be so fussed about terrorist attacks, and that the U.S. is big enough to take a hit. It seemed he was unaware the U.S. had already taken a hit with a kill-rate of over 3,000, more lives lost in a few hours than the Irish Republican Army had achieved in over three decades. I would have mailed him a copy of the New York Times dated Sept. 12, 2001 if I had his address.

I also wanted to call Mr. Chomsky and suggest he provide the addresses of his parents or children to the terrorists as an acceptable target, to see if he would then think a “hit” not such a big deal.

When living in an American/British/Canadian enclave in Madrid, we were occasionally treated to warnings that Spain’s Basque terrorists (ETA) were going to target the local malls during the Christmas season to send a message to the Americans. Our U.S. friends were somewhat taken aback, having never heard of the Basque or even been aware that their government had anything to do with the Basque complaints. It did not, but that was not of interest to the terrorists. All they were looking for was a victim that would attract big headlines and American victims fit the bill.

That’s the thing with terrorists – they don’t have to worry about re-election and so they can pick their victims at random without having to defend their decisions at the next polling of the electorate. And while the Spanish turned tail and voted to

run for cover when they did suffer their most significant terrorist attack at the Atocha station in 2004, which occurred just before a national election where they turfed the party that supported sending troops to Afghanistan (however token in number), they were not always so accommodating to bullies.

Interestingly, Spain is the one country that had earlier seen a reduction in terrorist activity when the Spaniards wearied of the ETA blasting children and civilians, and the population took to the streets in a protest not against their government for ‘not controlling the terrorist situation,’ but against the terrorists themselves. It was a refreshingly intellectual move on the part of the Spaniards and one we wish more protesters would emulate.

The ETA took note and announced a ceasefire that turned out to be its longest one (which sadly ended when we were there in 1999/2000).

But that drifts from my point that how one views terrorist activity can be governed by proximity. Living in zones that are potential or declared targets imbues the threat with vigour. Living safely in the confines of wherever Chomsky dwells or others who like to blame the victim or the government of the day for threats authored by madmen is another thing.

It is something to think about while gauging whether to run, drop to the ground or just wait for that final fatal bomb to go off while going about what is an otherwise ordinary day.

After-note: We described the Bern train station sound and smoke to our hotel staff friends and they said it was likely a problem in the electrical system. See, nothing wrong. 

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.