2: Swiss Surprise

Yawn. Another mountain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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69: Laundry list

My current laundry dryer.

Tatiana Warkentin, another home-bred Canadian prairie writer living in Switzerland, is pushing her way through a blog-challenge to post a blog every single day of this month. She’s doing it with the aid of the alphabet and she’s doing great, although, she appears to be sledding through a tough virus at the moment that threatens to knock off her resolve. You can check out her funny, wrenchingly honest blog at The Dubious Hausfrau. 

One of her recent posts sought to uncover the veil on this glamorous jet-setting lifestyle by admitting she watches a lot of television. I applaud this: Wasting time is how the most important creative work gets done.

Her idea seems like a good one, and so I’m copying it so that I don’t accidentally fool anyone into thinking our lives here are spent swimming in cheese fondues, conversing in foreign languages and dining on chocolate in many forms. Here are the highlights from my normal weekday. You can skip over what follows without fear. I call it “highlights,” but if you read it, you might call them lowlights.

  1. Check emails, Facebook, read news on the web.
  2. Write/edit for two or three hours.
  3. Exercise for 30 minutes. I can’t do this any longer without lapsing into a comatose state. I get through it by watching a television serial such as Downton Abbey or The Big Bang Theory. A friend can testify how bored I am because she happened on me during a circuit weight session at my cottage where she discovered I talk to myself, counting out repetitions and cheering myself to keep going.
  4. Hang out the morning laundry, sometimes go high-tech by pointing fans at it (see above).
  5. Breakfast.
  6. Clean up the hotel room.
  7. Check the mail, which happens to be where the hotel staff go for their cigarette breaks, so I spend some time chatting with them. They are dedicated to schooling me in the ways of the Swiss; a testament to the tenacity of these people, but then, they have rebuffed the French, Germans, Austrians, Hungarians and Italians from taking over their country, so what else could we expect from them?
  8. Head out for the midday shop which almost always entails some mortifying communication problem where someone tries to speak to me in German or French. This is a daily reminder to be nice to immigrants when I return to Canada. I have, by the way, always been nice to immigrants, but once you have been an immigrant you realize that what looked like nice to you was not as nice as you could have been. Immigrants need every bit of encouragement they can get.
  9. Engage in a choppy French conversation with an eccentric old woman who likes people to admire her rum-coloured poodle named Candy.
  10. Return to hotel room. Read blog draft, remember that it has a few pre-teens reading it, gasp in horror, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, then post it.
  11. Walk down to lake and stare at swans. Take note of daily routine of town drunks and drug addicts.
  12. Surf the local stores for sales: A necessary survival skill in Switzerland where most things are priced beyond the worst nightmares of most Canadians and Americans.
  13. Go on another walk along the canal where I stare at the ducks.
  14. Take down laundry.
  15. Phone home or online chat with friends in North America who are just waking up.
  16. Write some more.
  17. Greet Dave, realize I have not made dinner again, watch him cook a prepackaged meal (I will explain this another day).
  18. Go for another walk with Dave who is very good at steering me away from drunks and drug addicts, which makes me wonder whether I pay enough attention to my surroundings. Just yesterday he pulled me away from a trajectory that would have put me too close to a man who was attempting a personal relationship with a woman featured on an advertising poster in our town’s main square.
  19. Back to the hotel where we read emails, surf the web and sometimes sneak up to the hotel fitness room to scarf more towels. We are supposed to get by on only two bath towels a week, a starvation-level allotment if ever I saw one, so we bulk  up our supply. The hotel staff know we do this, take away our extra used towels without comment, and look the other way. Bless their hearts.
  20. If I am in an obsessive writing state, I will do some more of it.

And that is our exciting life in Switzerland.

 

 

 

 

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.