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?

97: A town with its own water cannon truck

Now that's a water cannon!

Our town may only house 60,000 souls or so, but that doesn’t mean its police force can’t have cool equipment, like armored water cannon trucks.

We were out for our Sunday stroll when we noticed all access points to our town square were covered by police vehicles and uniformed officers. Poised at the brink of the square was what looked like a Canada-style recycling truck. On closer inspection, we found the police logo on the door, which led to questions about whether police were branching out into the refuse and recycling collection biz.

Water cannons are abhorred in North America for their historical use in the race riots of the 1960s, but they are still made and sold in Europe (U.K.-manufactured), and come in handy to remind soccer rioters to keep their game-enthused vandalism confined to the arena.

Dave voted we just keep walking and not let our eyes meet any of the officers’ gazes, but my reporter sensibilities drove me on to the nearest armed police officers. Dave kept a distance so that after my arrest he would still be available to file a report to Amnesty International and call our U.N. -connected friends to see if they could shake me loose from the clutches of the Swiss authorities.

The officers were friendly and said that they were readying for a soccer riot, which is just about the best thing I’ve heard all year. European soccer riots are the stuff of legend and seeing one up close would be memorable. This view is why, by the way, Dave would like to put a leash and muzzle on me when we go out for a stroll.

“So, when should I stay clear of the square,” I asked the officer, but as any cop will tell you, when a reporter asks when to stay away, she is really saying, “When does the party start and what should I wear?”

Sadly, he said there was no need to stay clear. None of the officers wore that tense ‘don’t mess with me I have guns, billy clubs, a stun gun and I am ready to play Star Trek/Star Wars/Battlestar Galatica  on your head’ expression. The armored water cannon vehicle, the haul-you-off-to-jail vans and police were all a show of hands and in our mostly unassuming quiet little watchmaking town, that is enough to keep the peace.

Tear gas used to protect pro-life protesters.

As a side note: Although the police told me there was water in the cannon truck, Swiss police do sometimes use the trucks to shoot tear gas into crowds. It is reported they did exactly that last year when a peaceful march of about 1,000 people favoring protection for unborn children was threatened by people favoring unrestricted abortion access.

Teddy Bears: The Swiss’s Secret Weapon in the Event of a Nuclear Disaster

That teddy bear will teach that nuclear monster a thing or two.

A somewhat shaky grasp on the management of natural gas leaks isn’t all that excites us about Switzerland. There’s also the threat of a nuclear disaster.

We get a good view of a nuclear silo on the train ride between Zürich and Biel, but I talked myself into believing it’s just a grain silo, a very wide and somewhat oddly shaped one, but still one that would be good place to store wheat, or perhaps, nuclear stuff.

That little personal myth melted away this week. In the mail, among all the usual sales brochures was a German, French and Italian  square blue and white packet from our Canton police, military, population protection and sports – yes sports – branches.

This Czech Republic nuclear plant is ready for disaster - see, it's next to a chapel, cause if it blows, there will be a prayer meeting like the Czechs have never seen before.

It was the sports part that got me nervous – were they suggesting only the athletic would survive whatever warnings were coming from the police, military and sports divisions?

A quick run through Google Translate revealed that we are within 20 km of a nuclear power plant. The opening line, intended to have a calming effect, declares that nuclear technology is very safe, but the authorities want to minimize any “risk of prejudice in an accident.” What does that mean? In the event of a nuclear meltdown, a little bit of prejudice might be a good thing, seeing as prejudice means to “pre-judge,” and if pre-judgment means I’ll be stocked up on food, water and iodine pills, well, I’m all for that.

The brochure details the rules of behavior in “an increase of radioactivity.” I don’t need the Swiss to tell me that. My rule of behavior will be to run madly in circles, screaming “Oh no, oh no oh no!!!” It may be ineffective, but it’s straightforward and simple to follow.

Swiss authorities to nuclear-fall-out residents: Grab your teddy bears. This is going to get a lot worse before it gets better!

According to the pamphlet, the first thing to do is to listen to the radio and follow the authority’s instructions. The second thing to do is – and I’m not kidding about this, it is in the brochure – is to continue to listen to the radio and continue to follow the authority’s instructions. 

This suggests that the authorities don’t really have any other bright ideas to follow up their first recommendation.

There’s also advice to not let pets outside and to head for your cave or abri. I’m not sure what an abri is, but the accompanying illustration suggests it is a reinforced subterranean bunker, as depicted by a very thick black line that is about 6 times the width of the black lines depicting the house or regular basement. Obviously, it should have no ventilation, but heck, who wants to breathe when the air is full of isotopes or other deadly nano-particles.

But it will be a fun time down in the bunker as the Swiss authorities mandate that we should all bring toys for children. It’s going to be a regular play-date. Yes, a teddy bear will get us through a nuclear meltdown.

Now we are in Switzerland, not Russia, so I don’t really worry about a nuclear disaster, but if I had been in Japan, I would have said exactly the same thing, and I would have been wrong. Cue nervous jitters.

Swiss misdirect night-time marathoners, cut race short by 7.5 km

Somewhere along the way, the Swiss noted the growing popularity of marathons. Factoring in that as many as  a half-million Americans complete them in a year, and about 500 marathons are held worldwide annually, our local Swiss decided 42 kilometres must be too easy.

And so the Swiss of Biel/Bienne introduced a 100-kilometre race, and to protect against it growing too popular, and therefore, easy, they run it at night. It is going on right now, as I write this, although it is just after noon here, but that is what happens when you run a ridiculously long race – it becomes an around-the-clock event.

Runners were here.

If history is an indicator, somewhere in the neighbourhood of 4,500 runners took off from downtown Biel, running right past our hotel, so at a few minutes before 10, Dave announced it was time to go downstairs to watch the runners. At precisely that moment, my Skype box popped up, showing a friend who has been wrangling with a head injury was online.

“You go ahead,” I said. “I’ll just see how the head injury is coming along.” I said this because I believed it would take the runners 10 minutes to get to our corner and that it would be the same as past races I’ve attended or covered as a reporter – in other words there would be at least 10 solid minutes of human flesh pounding the pavement.

It turns out I was wrong about that. Before I had gotten a full report on my friend’s condition, Dave returned to the hotel room. The runners had surged past in one giant overflowing bubble, instead of the long train we had expected.

This is a good time to point out that Dave has scored a victory in the “Hurry up, Jo, we’re going to miss it” department of our marital history. Good for him. He wins. I have learned my lesson.

The runners were supposed to loop around our area twice, so I abandoned my friend and raced down to catch the second surge.

It never appeared. Police officers controlled the intersections with gates, the roads were closed to traffic and down the road we could see throngs of spectators. But no runners. We wandered a block down, and saw a few stragglers on the course. We waited. The crowd’s energy flattened, although music still blared over the loudspeakers.

Then two front-runners came into view, whipped around the corner decisively and were gone. Ah, the pack must be coming soon, we said.

We were wrong about that.

After more than 10 minutes a single runner came down the street that was flanked with overarching balloons and marathon paraphernalia, which suddenly looked like a lot of fuss over not much.

I readied the camera for him to turn the corner, but then instead of turning he went straight. No one stopped him. Not speaking the local languages and unable to discern whether the idiots were us or the race-marshalls, we shrugged and waited.

Minutes passed, the spectators started to break up, and then another lone runner appeared. This one turned the corner where the front-runners had and we surmised that the earlier lone runner had made a dreadful mistake, or perhaps he was on one of the shorter races that runs concurrent to the 100-km race.

Then this last runner turned back, ran up to one of the reflective-jacket-wearing race marshalls who directed him back up the road.

A runner going in the opposite direction of other runners at the Biel/Bienne 100k on June 17. Either he is the only guy to memorize the course and so he's ignoring the race marshalls, or he is but the first of many on a misdirected course.

As we neared our hotel we saw another lone runner, but this one running in the opposite direction of the other runners we had seen. I snapped a photo and we continued to puzzle over the mysterious disappearance of thousands. We walked along dark barricaded roads, passing officers, who we suspected might be thinking the same thing as us, that is,  “Where is everybody?”

It turns out we were right about that.

This morning I checked the race website to see an announcement that gosh-darn-it the organizers are blushing, but it seems that the entire field of runners was misdirected, thus cutting seven kilometres off the race.

Here is the Google Translate version: As a result of a misdirection in the city of Biel (crossing road freight / Murtenstrasse) the runners of the marathon, half marathon and walking without additional round was conducted directly on the route.This lack these routes around 7.5 km distance.

I don’t know yet what this means for the 100-kilometre runners, but some marathoners are going to be mighty pleased with their race times.

Update: Race officials are giving affected runners’ vouchers to waive fees in their events (marathon, half-marathon and walking) in  the 2012 100 KM race, along with a “letter of excuse.”