7: Snarl

A dog snoozes at his owner’s feet, happy inside a Starbucks restaurant.

A dog attacked me on my morning jog yesterday. It was leashed to a young woman who only laughed as her snarly snapping border collie made a go for my shins.  I say “only” because she showed no reflexive movement to her dog’s lunging at me. A little jerk of the leash would have been nice, but that did not occur.

That is about what I expected.  My experience of dog-owners, particularly owners of aggressive dogs, is that they are clueless about their beloved Bowser’s behavior, because they are at the tail-end of the leash. The view is different from the other side, the one with fangs.

This brought to mind my hometown Victoria, British Columbia, where tightened leash laws came into force this week, a move that I doubt will do much except produce a more stressed dog population.

I loathe it when North Americans shore up weak arguments with “that is how they do it in Sweden” defenses – a lazy myopic debating tool if ever there was one, mostly because people using that device are operating with a scant understanding of how Sweden or any faraway land really works. But here I am about to dive in with a “this is how they do it in Switzerland argument” against tighter leash laws. My only defense is that I live in Switzerland.

Over the past year, we have seen countless unleashed dogs of all breeds trot past us with nary a glance in our direction. Un-neutered males frolic in parks, beagles bumber about inside housing goods shops as their owners browse, retrievers relax under restaurant tables and  train-riding chows tolerate total strangers stepping over them. Unleashed dogs walk at a perfect heel on busy streets and in packed parks. A dog is a dog the world over, so the difference has to be something to do with the Swiss.

I had previously believed Swiss dogs’ docile natures was a product of their socialization – that is, that they are allowed nearly everywhere: Trains, buses, stores (some restrictions apply inside grocery stores), malls, wherever there are people, there are dogs. I assumed this to be the driving civilizing effect on canines and very likely this is the case. But there is more to it.

Switzerland is swathed in bureaucracy. For example, no one is allowed on a golf course until they have been certified. It seems a bit far-fetched but there it is.

The same thinking applies to dog-ownership. Switzerland demands that dog-owners become certified before they actually own a dog, and certification does not mean just paying a fee and getting a piece of paper; it means taking a course in dog-training. After successfully completing the course, the person then gets the dog and later goes back for further training and certification.

Fifteen months ago, learning this would have made me roll my eyes and groan at an all-reaching bureaucracy, but now it seems like a very good idea. It elevates the general base of knowledge of all dog-owners. The result is a very polite pooch population.

A leash law would not have done anything to protect me from yesterday’s dog-attack. The problem was not with the dog on the leash, but with the obtuse woman holding the other end of it.

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68: Swiss Fish

This fish must be depressed.

If there is something the Swiss like more than rules, it is making sure that everyone adheres to them, and this is why our hotel staff dare not put a fish in the large glass bowl that adorns the hotel’s front desk.

Pet fish can only be kept in aquariums with corners as it is deemed cruel to consign fish to a life of endless circles with no beginning and no end. I suppose corners might prevent the fish from falling into some kind of existentialist funk, but really? No fishbowls allowed at all? It seems a bit extreme, so I suggested to the staff that they put a fish in the bowl anyway (with water, of course).

It turns out that little rebellion against authority is a no-go. Someone could call the Fish Help-Line (I made that name up) and there would be officers at the desk to the rescue the fish and apply penalties.

Ah, there is nothing so refreshing as living in a society of efficient informers. It reminds me of  Victoria, British Columbia where neighbours are encouraged to tattle on one another to the local government for the slightest thing (using the wrong pesticide or any pesticide at all, watering the lawn outside of the regulated hours or with a non-approved nozzle) and feel quite self-righteous about it.

It is a show of bureaucracy gone overboard, which is one of Europe’s biggest drawbacks. A German friend, for example, migrated to Canada partly because she tired of applying for permits for the simplest activities, such as painting her front door. Apparently, she would have to get her chosen colour approved beforehand. Here in Switzerland, foreigners bringing in pets have to present them to a veterinarian for inspection and register them in the country’s pet database within 10 days.

It’s a little odd for a landlocked country full of farmland where loose dogs could roam over the border in massive rabid packs before anyone would take notice. It is not as if this is Australia or England.

I could be wrong about this, but when local government concerns itself with the shape of aquariums or regulates twist versus spring-lever nozzles, it is a sign of municipal mental meltdown.

79: Travel Turbulence for Tresses

This is how my hair looks immediately after styling. This look will last less than 10 minutes.

The life on the road looks so glamorous until you consider: How shall I pack my hairdresser.

You can’t pack your hairdresser, or her incredible wisdoms regarding your mane, so for the time that you are away from home, you are away from all that props up your personal appearance.

Before we left for Europe, my daughter-in-law, a fantastic professional make-up artist whose recent work appeared on Ryan Seacrest’s website, schooled me in the magic of make-up for the middle-aged. I swear, I did not force my son to marry her just for my benefit, but that would have been a smart move, had it been necessary. She is the reason I can walk the streets of Switzerland without terrifying the locals with my withering visage.

Sometimes a hat is the only answer to hairscare.

But I drift: I can be schooled in make-up, I can pack a box of MAC products that will see me through the year, but my hairdresser is not quite so portable. Last summer, all she could do as she gave my mop a last reshaping was advise pulling it back into a ponytail when it reached that inevitable point of unpresentable-in-public. I reached that point about six weeks after that. It’s been a serious year of ponytail-itis.

How bad can it get? When I showed up in a Sydney, Australia hair salon in 2000, the stylists were so horrified that they all stopped what they were doing to gather around. They quoted something like $400 to repair the damage, but I am morally opposed to spending that much money on my mane, so I passed, spending the rest of our time overseas in a state of shame.

This is how my hair normally looks 10 minutes after styling.

In Spain, I took a recommendation from a friend and had a hairstylist come to my home. The result was an orangey-Ringo-Starrish crown from which I am still in emotional recovery. I would post a photo, but mercifully there are none.

And so this time around, I swore off hairdressers until we get back to Canada. I’m getting by with microscopic self-trims plus Rusk haircare products recommended to me by a friend who is a theatre/film wardrobe pro (I only point this out to show that it takes more than the fashion-hobbyist to keep me presentable).

It seems extreme, but I am not alone. I know a Victoria-based editor who only gets her haircut when she’s visiting family in Italy, another woman in Victoria who only gets her hair trimmed in Vancouver and the list goes on. My own hairdresser says I am not her only overseas client who eschews salons until she hits Victoria.

A good hairdresser is hard to find, but a great hairdresser is worth the wait.

Thun, beautiful but often ignored

If this were Winnipeg, the residents would be sandbagging like mad. But it's not. It's Europe and so having water right up to the building's foundations is just fine.

Thun sits within sight of Switzerland’s spectacular Bernese Alps, which means that it is much-ignored as people speed on past to get to the mountains. It’s name is no help: Pronounced ‘toon,’ it struggles to be taken seriously, and fails to inspire curiosity the way that a name like Zermatt, Zürich or Neuchatel might. Poor Thunites.

But their town is lovely, with the River Aar running through it, the classical cobblestone streets, covered bridges, a castle, and scores of outdoor riverside cafes.

Once you make it up the steep stairs leading to the castle, you're rewarded with a maze of these lovely cozy walled cobblestone lanes.

Our first clue the town is somewhat overlooked came when we stopped in at the visitor information centre. These are often found in train stations and usually attract a lot of traffic as tourists flood up from the station platforms, but when we arrived we increased the office’s tourist population by 100%. The agent was so happy to see us that she came around from the booth to greet us, bidding us welcome in such a way that it was clear our presence was her only hope for job security.

The truth is, Thun would not rank high on any tourist guide’s “must-see” list, but that is because it has such fierce competition. As Dave has noted, while B.C. has one Victoria, Switzerland has about 500, or one every 10 minutes. How can a place stand out with competition like that?

Thun. Ugh. What a horrible place.

If you go, make sure to take the walk up to the castle. The stair-climbing will just about kill anyone – and as proof, not long after we arrived at the top gasping and clutching our chests, a woman not 30-years-old came up behind us, panting and red-faced. So it wasn’t just us. You will be rewarded with a stroll down some stone-walled, cobblestoned lanes that afford a lovely rooftop view over Thun and onto the Bernese Mountains, which everyone else has rushed off to see, leaving you with Thun all to yourself.

Thun has spectacular views of the Bernese mountains, including Jungfrau.

Getting lost in 20,000 easy steps

I get lost almost everyday, so poor is my sense of direction, but Dave is of another breed, a type that innately knows where he is all the time. This is one of the reasons I married him. He works better than a compass and comes with the added bonus of holding my hand when leading me around. Compasses are not so compassionate. Also, I keep losing my compass. Dave is a foot taller than me, so I can usually find him.

In a rare moment this weekend, however, Dave was as lost as I, and I blame Basel for this. Look at this map:

Which way is north and south is hard to say when you're in this maze.

We ended up turned around somewhere near Bartusserplatz, a name that to the English ear sounds like a bit of a joke, and that is what we thought the tourist office was playing on us. We roamed the streets in the rainfall, in something of a daze trying to find the city gates, which really are worth finding. They are classical medieval gates that bring to mind Europe’s castle-storming history.

Basel Spalen city gate dating back to sometime between 1080 and 1398.

The city was once surrounded in walls and splendid gates, but in 1859 a city council decided to demolish the whole works but for a few gates, which goes to show that the stupidity of city/municipal councils is a time-honoured tradition that carries on in a lively manner even today, especially in Victoria, B.C., where the regional overseers allowed a crazy-8 traffic circle configuration on an uncluttered highway that serves the airport and ferry terminal, giving tourists heart stoppages in unknown numbers. But I digress…

We often walk about 12,000 to 14,000 steps on a single day of touring, but in Basel we went over 20,000, marching almost 9.5 miles, of which at least six miles were spent completely mystified over our location.

We have come back from this fog with advice for those aspiring to visit Basel. Here it is:

  1. Find the river and make it your reference point. There is no help in making an intersection or any roadway a reference point because they are as thick as the wool in a tight-knit scarf, not to mention that the Swiss are quite lax about street signage (this is probably in case Germany decides to invade, in which case the German army would have to ask for directions; quite an embarrassment for an invading army).
  2. The tourist office will tell you to take a bus from the train station to the historic quarter. Ignore this advice. The walk is less than 10 minutes and goes through a charming park and some pretty streets.
  3. Do not ask a local to place you on the map. We tried. They don’t know where they are either.
  4. When lost, just keep walking. The saving grace of all old-town districts is that they are not that large and eventually you will come out on either a freeway, at the train station or possibly in Spain, all easily identifiable on a map.

Not so scared any more

What the heck? This isn't Kansas.

As prairie gal, I have a natural distrust of heights, depths, ditches, anything other than the level plain. It is therefore something of an accomplishment that Dave got me to board the gondola at Wengen without me leaving clawmarks on the door frame signifying that I had to be dragged in.

It’s a sign that Dave’s campaign to overcome my fear of heights by overwhelming me with a carousel of gondola rides up unthinkable mountain pitches is working.

I should point out that a wariness of inclines is a naturally protective inclination, and one that was amplified when in Victoria last year giant rocks fell from a cliff into a suburban home, rendering it unsuitable for habitation. Earlier, giant boulders were dynamited from the mountain side near our home, landing on a road where they could have easily crushed any passing Hummers.

You know you're in Switzerland when .....

This never happens in Manitoba or the parts of North Dakota with which I am familiar.  You might get flooded out or snowed under in these regions, but those are disasters you can see coming from a distance, and so make necessary arrangements. Falling boulders lack any sense of courtesy and give no warning of their impending arrival.

But that has nothing to do with this. It is but a mere side-note that perhaps explains my near-phobia of vertical stretches.

We boarded the spacious gondola at Wengen with about 15 others, and were able to roam from side-to-side taking in the beautiful views all around us, feeling quite relaxed until the gondola lurched and skipped suddenly upwards, then swayed in such a way that I readied to sprint in ever-accelerating circles around the gondola while screaming “We’re all going to die! We’re all going to die!, but then the gondola docked into the station at Mannheim and  my planned panic attack suddenly seemed quite silly.

North Dakota: No falling boulders or steep cliffs here. Phew. Courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife.

That does not mean that my war with heights was over. Far from it.

But that was on the weekend. I will write more about that tomorrow. In the meantime, our town is undergoing another heat wave, so I’m sitting in the dark, with curtains drawn, fans swiveling, trying to understand how it is that today in Atlanta, Georgia, it will be 32 C, while here the forecast is for 33 C and if our past heat waves are any indication, it will get hotter than that.

Our hotel is without air conditioning, so there’s nothing to do but tough it out. I also erroneously reported last month that local stores are also without air-conditioning, but happily I was wrong about that. It appears that some were merely exercising a policy to not cool their air until past some arbitrary timeline. I have found three stores with lovely cool artificial climates and I intend to patronize all three today.

Here are some photos from the train ride up and down the mountain.

Cogwheel trains at Scheinzernfreaualdjgblergessellschaft. That is not its real name. It's real name is Scheidegg, but all German sounds like an endless waterfall of syllables to me.

Yawn. Another mountain view from the train.

Dogs of all shapes and sizes are welcome on Switzerland's trains.

Trains need help to climb up and crawl down Jungfrauloch's steep mountains. Here's a close-up of the cogwheel track that serpentines along the ridges. On the ride down, the braking action is palpable. A derailment here would be a flung-from-cliff disaster.

Jungfrau's cogwheel trains are charming with large windows and surprisingly comfortable wood-back seats.

The Swiss are always ready for action, as you can tell by this train passenger car that has fold-up seats and plenty of floor space for bicycles, skis and other sporting gear.

Swiss people and parks

Biel/Bienne beach gets a summer face-lift.

We took a 15-minute stroll down to the lake last night and discovered it had gone tropical.

Ordinarily, the waterfront looks similar to North American urban shores with wide green stretches of parkland, towering leafy trees, shrubs hugging wood benches and paved promenades.

BEFORE: How the park usually looks - asphalt, lawn, shrubs, rock-line shore.

Last night, we found a corner had been barricaded behind unpainted plywood walls, its pebble and asphalt ground topped with 132 cubic tonnes of fine quartz  sand four-inches deep. The park benches had disappeared, to be replaced with potted tropical trees and rambling open-air wood cabanas serving up food and drink.

Wood boardwalks already made gritty with foot traffic led past a discreetly tucked-away public washroom trailer. The sandy spans between the boardwalks were furnished in wickery loungers, tables and chairs, as well as what can only be described as beds. It was all lovely.

AFTER: Palm trees, sand, lots of people.

I am not enthusiastic about alcohol-service in a park, however, the clientele looked dignified and sober, but that was at 9 p.m. I cannot say what it looked like at a later hour.

For those Victorians reading this, imagine the screaming that such an undertaking would create back home in Victoria where a good stretch of the urban waterfront is paved parking lot, and should an ice cream kiosk dare to brave the virgin cliffs along Dallas Road, it would be met with the city’s version of a lynch mob, that is, a preservation society that would quickly douse the vendors in letters-to-the-editor and petitions.

While we’re on the topic: Victoria and its neighbouring communities are home to almost 100-km of trails that run through rainforest, oceanside and farmland vistas, and yet only two public washrooms can be found along the trail. It’s as though the whole population gets by without bladders.

Meanwhile, the Swiss look at a beautiful lake, and think “wouldn’t sand be nice right here, along with some place to get a snack,” and then they do it.  No protest, just plenty of Swiss out along with two Canadians,  enjoying the lake air on a hot summer evening.

Addendum: I have since learned that the city of Biel/Bienne funds this seasonal oasis. It is set up every year and taken down in the fall. The city usually removes the sand, but sometimes spread it out over the pebble base, instead of trucking it away.

Large cabanas with long ship-hull-inspired bars serve food and drink.

Dave wanders into the park and wonders, where the heck did all this sand come from? And the beach furniture? And the hot dog stand?