Timid traveller at the halfway point, sort of

Steve: We're on a mountainside. What could go wrong?

Oh not much, except maybe falling off a cliff.


We are reaching the halfway point of our stay here in Switzerland. I started this blog to give some insight on the realities of overseas life, which from the outside has a glam shine to it, but on the inside, is more like listening the grinding sound of our lives coming to a halt. It is akin to being stuck in traffic, except the scenery is always changing.

I admit the scenery is pretty spectacular.

Being away means that we lose pockets of widely known information, such as who was premier in British Columbia. I was totally unaware of David Miller’s term in that office, owing to a protracted stay in Spain during his short tenure. At this moment, I cannot name most of Canada’s provincial premiers, even those that I have lived in.

On a more personal level, we lose touch with the dramas and comedies running in the lives of our friends and families, although this is not as parched an informational season as it was on past work terms, thanks to Facebook, email and Skype.

The truth is that living overseas is not the same as touring overseas. It is laced with unsympathetic administrators, and the occasional xenophobe who holds a grudge against all foreign workers and their families.

More mountains. Ugh.

The bureaucratic presence, however, has subsided for the time-being, and despite Switzerland having recently voted in what is regarded as its most insular xenophobic party, the number of actual xenophobes on the street are few. And so without an undercurrent of worry about being kicked out of the country, this blog has turned into something of a travel-blog, replacing the old travelogues – remember those? If you’re do, you are very old.

The problem is that travel blogs are supposed to include adventure and, of course, lots of travel. I am afraid of travel, so any element of adventure in these notes is totally unanticipated by me.

When I worked at a city paper, the editors realized my cowardice and my sheltered risk-adverse lifestyle, and so took it upon themselves to send me wherever the opportunity for crushing injury was most likely to occur. They knew it would generate a lively article typed out by my terrified fingertips, should I still have them on my return to the office.

This week, we did have the potential for a small brush with adventure (aside from the blast and smoke at the train station) with the arrival of Steve, one of our son’s old friends who is working in Switzerland over the winter. Steve is famous for having adventures of all sorts. He’s the type that attracts them, so if ever we were going to plunge off a cliff edge, this would be the day.

The steep cliffs in Lauterbrunnen.

Note of personal interest: Steve actually almost led to our son plunging off a cliff edge on Vancouver Island, when he convinced our boy the climb was not really a pure vertical. Also, Dave will not go golfing with Steve ever again, although Steve says, “You have to get over that.” I will describe what “that” is another time, but it happened almost a decade ago.

As we exited the train at Lauterbrunnen, I commented on how everything was going so well, despite Steve’s presence. He said, “Who would think that in ten minutes, we’ll be clinging to a cliff edge.”

He was wrong about that, but it was not entirely outside of the realm of possibility.

Later that day, when we heard that bang in the Bern train station and saw a column of black smoke rising up to the roof, I was not really surprised. I always expect the worst, so it made sense that we would arrive at the precise moment some terrorist organization should decide to detonate a crowded rail station.

Imagine my surprise that it turned out to be nothing, which leads us to the upside of being a pessimist: Happiness and wonder. Joy is what comes of expecting everything to go wrong, and finding that not everything does.

Optimists miss out on so much.

In the meantime, we have seven or eight more months here. Let’s see if we can get into any trouble in that time. And for those looking for more adrenalin in their lives, check out Jeb Corliss sailing off a Swiss cliff by clicking here. 

On Thanksgiving, Nazis and Political Campaigns

Campaign poster in Basel, Switzerland, October 2011

It’s the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, and here we are in Switzerland with not a turkey in sight but for a few meagre slices of deli turkey – not quite the same as the usual mountain of slow-roasted turkey, stuffing and gravy. Please take note of our suffering and deprivation.

Meanwhile, here in Switzerland the current obsession is the upcoming federal election. We haven’t seen any political lawn signs – perhaps they are illegal, or maybe just not part of the common practice. Instead signs are all over the train stations, and in commercial billboards.

It may shock some of you to know that I was once in charge of designing political signs for a friend of mine who did some math on an upcoming election, realized the vote was neatly split, leaving the takings open for her.

This is not to say that I am heavily politically inclined one way or another, but it is to say that if my friend takes it upon herself to invite personal abuse in the form of holding public office, I will be there to assist her in this endeavour, however foolhardy it may be. It was foolhardy. She won, and  for the next three years I had a front row seat on the public pounding she took from all quarters. Anyway, this tendency to help a friend even for a sometimes-irksome political party suggests my character has a few flaws, but loyalty to my friends is not one of them. Or maybe it is. You decide.

But the point is that ever since then I’ve taken an interest in campaign signs and the unspoken messages they deliver, which is the only way I can read them here in Switzerland as all the signs are in French, German or Italian and I haven’t got a clue what they’re saying. I’m going on visual cues alone.

One party groups its candidates on posters to resemble a family portrait, for example, placing a middle-age woman with two younger candidates who could be her adult children. Their smiling faces say “We get along with everyone. Join our family!”

Other signs seek to invoke the trustworthiness of authority, showing men who look like bankers in suits and ties. They are all vying for a post in the “Nationalrat,” which means parliament or national office – I do not have to make up this name  (see above for the proof).

Very few signs are defaced, (back in B.C. our signs had an impressively short lifespan), but of even more interest is what form campaign graffiti takes here on this side of the Atlantic. Several signs have been defaced with dabs of Hitler moustaches and the word “Nazis.” It is the only type of campaign graffiti we have seen thus far.

Nazis are an odd fringe group  in North America. I once interviewed a Washington State Nazi party leader that plans to take over Vancouver and turn it into an all-white state, prompting me to ask him, “Have you been to Vancouver lately? You really have your work cut out for you.” Later, I informed an Indo-Canadian friend of mine of the white-supremacist intentions for that city. She laughed and said, “We already own Vancouver!” Neither of us took the man seriously, but over here, the mention of Nazis is a different thing altogether, carrying ominous tones. Elderly Swiss citizens remember standing guard at the border, readying for a possible German invasion. And so this must be the ultimate insult to Swiss candidates – to be likened to Nazis.

How much truth is there in rhetoric? Right-wing parties are typically referred to as Nazis while left-wing parties are Stalinists. Even my friend who won political office was accused of being a Nazi – a tag that was both at once repugnant, and hilarious for the fact that it could not have been further from the truth.

We’re still several weeks away from the election. This is Switzerland, the land of the orderly and neat, so I don’t expect much in the way of excitement, but then who knows? This continent’s history is palpable even today.

Addendum: A turkey part was located at a nearby grocery store. In keeping with Canadian custom, it has been consumed.