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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42: Nuclear Nixed

Switzerland already uses solar power the old-fashioned way – with clotheslines. This rooftop clothesline is in the city core.

Switzerland derives 40 per cent of its electric power from six nuclear reactors* – all of which are slated for shutdown by 2030 as decided in a recent plebiscite. That gives the Swiss 18 years to figure out where to make up that considerable energy shortfall, and so they are looking into amping up their hydro-electric options.

A Swiss neighbourhood of row houses has multiple dedicated spaces for communal clotheslines. As a fan of sun-dried linens, I love this.

We tend to think of the frugal Swiss as energy-efficient what with their affection for public transport, train travel and these confounded greyish lightbulbs, but they’re not. On a global scale, they are 21st out of 217 countries in electricity consumption on a per capita basis. Canada is #4. Yes, we beat the Swiss in the hockey world championships this year and now they must deal with this added humiliation.

Before environmentalists jump on Canada for this, the reference point is for electrical consumption only, and that Canada is such a high consumer is related to its world-class hydro-electric infrastructure. Energy consumption correlates to national development, stability, industrialization and affluence, with the world’s saddest nations consuming the least power. I am waiting for David Suzuki to stand up and applaud Somalia for its “green” economy.

In the meantime, expect the Swiss to come up with something inventive to cope with their energy diet. They know how to make the most out of very little. They turned a landlocked, mountainous scrap of land into a world economic leader by selling things that can fit in your pocket: Drugs, watches and chocolate. ***

* Swiss media sources sometimes report the number of reactors at seven. The European Nuclear Society reports only five.

** Pharmaceuticals, not illegal drugs. This isn’t Mexico.

*** There is more to it than these three, of course. There’s also Swiss banking, cheese, ski resorts and the Red Cross. For such a small place, this country has a huge cultural footprint.

Swiss cheesecake

On the cogwheel train ride up from Lauterbrunnen valley to Wengen in Switzerland's Jungfrau region.

This place is makes me feel good about myself, mostly because I’m running into people more abrupt than me.

Saturday, Dave and I returned to Switzerland’s Interlaken region to see what was on the other side of the mountain range we had admired weeks ago and to see if we could make it to the “top of Europe,” that is “Jungfraujoch,” which stretches 3,454 m into the sky.

It’s  a mystery why Jungfrauloch is called the top of Europe when it sits in the shadow of  Jungfrau, a 4,158-metre colossus. My only reckoning is that the cogwheel train that grinds its way up this mountain only goes as high as Jungfrauloch, so it might as well be the top.  I can imagine the railworkers reaching the tip of Jungfrauloch, only to see greater heights beyond them, and in their exasperation they put in the last railway spike as a way of saying, “What taller mountain? We don’t see any higher mountains around here. This is the top of Europe and if you want to say any different, you pound a rail track to it. Until then, this is it.”

I don’t know this for sure. I am only guessing. Another mystery is why the region is called Jungfrau, which translates into young woman, or someone told us “virgin.” Perhaps it was virgin territory at one time, but now it is a playground criss-crossed by tour buses, trails, trains, gondolas and the like. Nevertheless, it is massive enough to absorb these human tracks without losing it’s grandeur.

Hildegard, hard at work. Time waits for no man, and Hildegard waits for no customer, although technically, she is a waitress, so you would think she'd wait around while we figured out our order.

We got off the train in Wengen and stopped in at the Crystal Cafe Bar, a place that looked and felt eerily like Hideaway Tavern in Redditt, Ontario, which is run by a robust family of Icelandic extraction.

Hideaway no longer functions as tavern, although the family is still there and they still run hunting and fishing excursions, as well as rent cabins. We half expected to see them when we stepped inside Crystal Cafe’s honey-beadboard wood interior with plain, sensible furnishings. I am not making up Hideaway Tavern, which is now known as Hideaway Outfitters. Click on Hideaway to check it out.

The operator, an older woman who looked as though she might have just topped the mountain herself that morning and would do it again at the slightest suggestion came to our table. Let’s call her Hildegard.  I asked for a croissant and Hildegard said, “No croissants! All gone!”

Okay. So I asked about danishes and she said, “No!”

A little abrupt, but not in a rude way. I suddenly realized I was staring at a person who had taken my level of abruptness and doubled it up. She was to me, as I am to most Canadians, that is, just a little sharp. It was refreshing. After all, I am in some oblique way related to these quasi-Germanic tribes. Obviously, the plain-spoken gene is dominant.  Hildegard tried to escape then, but we hailed her back and managed to put in an order.

Cheese cake in theory; quiche in fact. Lousy cheesecake. Good quiche.

We watched her work other tables and she had the same manner, which roughly went along the lines of  “what do you want?” and if the customers didn’t know what they wanted right away, she wasn’t about to coach them along. She would just leave while they sorted out their problems on their own. She had enough work to do without babysitting customers.

Dave ordered a grilled ham sandwich, which was good, and I ordered cheesecake. Cheesecake is not exactly recommended for lunch in accordance with the Canada Food Guide, but it is loaded with protein and I am ever curious as to the form cheesecake takes in other countries.

As a side-note, about 28 years ago Dave and I sublet our townhouse to a Swiss family. The wife invited me over for cheesecake one afternoon, and what with her being Swiss, and this being a cheese-laced dessert, I expected great things. What a disappointment. It was the worse cheesecake I had ever had. I think she was from the German side of Switzerland and so did not brook any nonsense that would dilute the cake’s cheesy character, such as by adding whipping cream, eggs or sugar.

We were surprised by the dimensions of the ketchup packet. We think it says, "If you don't like your lunch, just spray it with this."

But no mind. After a 28-year interval, I was ready to try another Swiss cheesecake.

Hildegard returned with two small cheesecakes with scorched black tops. This made me feel at home and I silently blessed Hildegard for correctly reading me as a person familiar with burnt offerings.

As cheesecakes go, these were infinitely worse than my last Swiss cheesecake. In fact, they were not cheesecake at all, but quiche. Very cheesy quiche. And, as such, were excellent. It was exactly the right thing before trying a mountain hike.

Tomorrow: Heading up the mountain.

Say Cheese

How do the Swiss get those holes in their cheese?

Woke up to a smelly apartment this morning. Cheese must have snuck out of the fridge while we were asleep.

Swiss cheese here is not very much like Swiss cheese anywhere outside of Switzerland. In North America, it has a polite nip in its flavour. Over here, it stinks so bad that we are forced to limit the number of times we open the fridge door, just to preserve the air quality in our place. This is a true fact.

It seems heretical to say, but I am having trouble believing in Swiss cheese per se, just as I am deeply suspicious of my mother’s pre-1961 claims about Santa Claus.

For one thing, I have yet to locate a single block of cheese in any of the local stores with the name “Swiss” on it. The only names I recognize are Brie, Camembert, Feta and Emmental.

Note to editors: Yes, I capitalize all cheese names out of respect for any food made up of 70 per cent or more fat. Canadian Press Style Guide be darned.

Instead, the labels on cheeses here change every three days and read in long Franco-Germanic hieroglyphics like Kaltbach Holengereift  affine en grotte Kraftig-Wurzig intensement corse, which I believe translates into:  Right off the Cow’s Back while it hollered and it’s a fine although gross cheese nothing like Kraft, with an intense coarseness.

I’m suspicious of any grocer who claims to carry 983 varieties of cheese, as Swiss grocers make it appear with their vast dairy aisles. Now, having sampled their wares for over a month, I am ready to make the expert assertion that they only have one cheese, but sell it in various states of decay, and what appear to be name brands are actually warning stickers reading: Essenauf Eigene Gefahr and Acht Monate Vorbei Sein Verfallsdatum. *

This is the wonderful thing about the German language: It makes even the simplest things sound complex. It is how they came to master engineering and technology the world over.

In the meantime, I staggered toward the fridge this morning, facecloth pressed firmly over my nose and mouth to prevent inhaling more deadly cheese spores, declaring my intent to save us by disposing of the cheese.

Dave, Scottish by blood, would not hear of throwing out something we paid an exorbitant amount of money for, and declared he would eat the remainder – a sizeable pie-sized piece. Good man. Fell on his sword. **

*Translation: “Eat at your own risk,” and “Eight months past expiry.”

** I meant to write about the absence of Cheddar from Swiss shops, but got side-tracked. This is what cheese-spore-laden air will do to a person.