Good things come to an end, Part Two

We are about to give up the greatest ground-transport deal going in Europe: Our beloved SwissRail half-pass cards.

These blue translucent pieces of plastic have been with us on all our travels, halving our transportation costs, thereby giving us the endless impression of getting a great deal, and so travelling even more. And more.

In fact, we have been to so many places that my achilles are in a permanent state of near-rupture and my knees are filing complaints daily – because along with train-transport comes trekking a la foot once we arrive at our destination. We love walking, but in this case, the saying “love hurts” applies.

The half-pass, available to Swiss citizens and foreigners bearing a residency card, costs 165 CHF for one year. We handed our 330 Francs over (U.S. dollar equivalent $589,000)* for two cards on April 2nd last year, and through the magic of a rigorous touring schedule, quickly recouped the cards’ cost.

Those happy days are coming to a close as our cards expire in three weeks. To quote Prince Charles: Gloooooom.

As an example of how lovely this card is, our four-hour trip through France’s countryside to Paris cost about 600 Francs for two comfy first-class seats with an elegant supper service. Without our cards, the cost would have been 1,200 Francs. The card extends to bicycle rentals as well, so when we go out for a pedal, it costs us 25 CHF for the pleasure of a day on the bike trails instead of 50 CHF each. Not bad. A quick zip to Bern costs about 30 CHF return for the two of us, instead of 60 CHF. I have not tabulated how much we have saved over the past year, but it has been considerable.

The card can be renewed, but only in 12-month or greater increments, so it is a wash as to whether we will make up our costs by the time we depart this lovely continent in a few month’s time. But if the above math creates this air of sorrow, maybe some more math is the fix. **

Our little town is only 40 km from Bern, about the same distance as Sooke is to Victoria back in Canada, which we used to drive in about 40 minutes.

Biel to Bern via train:             $20 x 2 passengers = 1 return trip @ $30

Sooke to Victoria via bus:     $5  X 2 passengers  = 1 return trip @ $10

Sooke to Victoria via bike:   $0 x (infinite number of pedaling passengers) = $0 return trip ******

Sooke to Victoria via car:      $40 for a tank of gas x (1 to 5 passengers) x (8 to 10 return trips) = Feathers! The Swiss are ripping us off!

Now I feel better.

$589,000 is a joke. All other figures in this post are real.

**All currency in Canadian dollars as it is near par with Swiss Francs at the moment.

*** CHF is Swiss Francs. How do you get a “CH” from Swiss? By calling Switzerland’s currency by one of the country’s many names, in this case, the Confederation of Helvetica. Yes, Swiss Cheese, Helvetican Cheese – go on, make your cheesy jokes. 

**** Switzerland – German: die Schweiz; French: Suisse;  Italian: Svizzera; Romansh: Svizra; in its full name the Swiss Confederation (Latin: Confoederatio Helvetica, hence its abbreviation CH). 

***** In high school history classes, our teachers often lauded Switzerland’s neutrality as though it were the only well-behaved child in a class of fractious European nations. As usual, it turns out closing the geographical gap between us and Switzerland reveals that maintaining neutrality was not a given, but a hard-earned negotiated position. Switzerland shot down both Allied and Axis fighter planes during WWII, and at one point were so sure the Germans were about to invade that they were preparing to literally head for the hills, that is, a portion of the Swiss Alps that they were more likely to be able to defend from attack. There are still people alive here who remember that. 

****** Bicycle travel drawback: It takes five hours to cover the 100 km/h trip, which is a lengthier Sooke-to-Victoria trip through Vancouver Island’s Galloping Goose trail, a trip that is so enjoyable that it is one of the first things I plan to do when I get back to Victoria.

******* I just like asterisks. 

Advertisements

Reporter’s Secret About Christmas Markets: Get Out of Town

We trolled through Zürich’s Christmas Market last weekend, taking in the heady aromas of gluhwein (mulled wine) and rotting cheese.

The Swiss don’t consider it rotting cheese, but whatever they call this bacterial mould thing, it reeks so badly that I have not been able to get near enough to learn its name.

Despite my aversion for puke-stinking cheese, this concoction must have something going for it, because people line up in large numbers wherever it is served. Dave has tried to convince me to take a bite, but the tidal gag reflex kicks in and I can not.

Christmas decorations at the Zürich market.

In my former life as a staff reporter, I was called upon to cover festivals, community art shows, markets and the like. This does not make me an expert on their qualities, but it does put me into “observer” status, and so here’s the scoop on street markets. You don’t have to go to the big city to get the best stuff.

It is true.

On British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, Victoria has a grand Christmas market, that I will not name here, that is posh, well-promoted and high-profile. On the other hand, the country-cousin markets in Metchosin, Sooke and Sydney are cobbled together in an earthy fashion with goods laid plainly out on tables, their actual makers (or a stand-in relative) posted behind the wares. The decor amps up a little sometimes, but mostly that is what it is.

They may not have as elaborate a set-up, but the goods have a genuine homegrown quality.

Life-size Christmas models top a children's carousel at Zürich's Christmas Market.

Take for example Sooke’s leading jam and preserve artist, Mary Holland*. Her goods are made from her own garden produce, and she comes up with flavor combinations that are so delicious, even I, the fussiest eater in the world, cannot resist them, slathering them not only on fresh bread, but on hamburgers, chicken, hotdogs, everything. Yum.

Nothing at the glorious urban market comes even close to Mary’s preserves. Just so everyone knows, I don’t use the term “jam and preserve” with the word “artist” all that often. My vernacular is not constructed to adopt passing fancies of language. A jam-maker is a jam-maker in my dialect, however, Mary has elevated the practice into artistry. There, I said it.

What does this have to do with the Zürich Christmas Market? Maybe nothing, but at this moment our town’s downtown streets are crammed with little sheds being decorated for its market. It will not have a glamorous Swarovski-crystal bejewelled Christmas tree towering over it, as does Zürich’s market, but maybe it will have homegrown goods that match the scale of Sooke’s, and possibly exceed that of Zürich’s market.

I don’t know yet whether it will, but I know from experience that it is possible.

And there’s nothing wrong with Zürich’s market. Just saying.

*She and her husband Steve run Little Farm – Mary’s Medleys in Sooke.

Fruity fruit

In the fascinating world of international travel, I bring you the story of fruit.

Foreign food is different, not just because each culture and country has its own way of seasoning, cooking and serving food, but because the food itself will be different. It is the same principle as in wine, which is said to absorb its  unique flavours from the region in which the grapes grow.

And so, B.C. blueberries differ from Ontario’s (Ontario wild blueberries are better, sorry B.C.), Manitoba eggs taste nothing like those in Madrid, and so on.

Flavour matters to me. I love food. Who would have known it? But, I’m also very particular and so feel some trauma at leaving behind Canada with its fabulous wild blueberries, incredible sweet Silver Rill corn, unbeatable Alberta beef tenderloin and affordable salmon.

Here, everything tastes different. It’s not all bad. Despite my love for the flavours I grew up with in Canada, I have to admit that Switzerland’s store-bought strawberries leave North American franchise grocery offerings in the dust.

When it comes to Canada’s Bartlett pears, I am in heaven, but guess what. There are no Barletts in Switzerland, which has set me on a path of discovery.

I’ll just cut to the chase. Bartlett-lovers should head for Harrow Birnen Sweet, which comes from the same family as Bartlett and has almost exactly the same sugary texture and flavour. Buy it. You will be happy. Happier still, it is a late-season pear, so it was available in our stores until last week. Today, I ate the last one. Sadness descends.

In searching for a replacement, I also tested Italy’s one-pound “Abate” pear and Portugal’s 6 oz. “Rocha” pear. The Rocha is an acceptable Harrow/Bartlett replacement, but it is only 1/7th the pear in flavour, so adjust your standards accordingly. Italy, who has romanced the world with its fabulous eats, falls down on its face with Abate. It is literally a pound in weight, as my new digital scale confirms, and tastes something like an apple, but without the flavour. It costs about $2 a pear, hardly worth it.

How do I know? Despite the $2 investment, I chucked it in the garbage. I am really cheap. Chucking fruit after a single bite is the ultimate insult. Pear-growers in Italy probably felt a disturbance in the force.

Still trying to figure out this country, the sweet and the sour

 

It’s funny what thoughts the town drunk will inspire.

For a teensy weensy little nation, Switzerland occasionally shows up in the top 10 richest countries in the world, which is something when you consider that it is competing against Qatar and the U.S.  In fact, according to Business Insider, it even topped the U.S., coming in at #6 over the U.S. at #7, based on GDP per capita.

Of course, where a country ranks depends on how the ranking is measured. For example, if a country’s riches were determined by the quantity of chocolates it produces, you would think Switzerland is #1, but guess what, it is not.

The top chocolate confectionary producer title goes to a U.S. company, Kraft Foods Inc. As a top consumer of chocolate products, I am stunned by this revelation from the International Cocoa Organization, a very real entity that I would love to work for.

Biel the beautiful.

Switzerland is the third-largest chocolate producer with the Swiss Nestle’ corporation placing it there, just behind “Mars,” a U.S. company. The U.S. is home to three of the world’s top-ten chocolate-makers.That is pretty impressive, but consider that Switzerland has two companies in the top ten, then compare the two  nations’ population and geography (the U.S. is gumpteenzillion times bigger, for one), and Switzerland is all the more outstanding. You have to think that if the U.S. applied the same degree of diligence that the Swiss do, we would be swimming in chocolate. This would be okay with me.

When the GDP alone is tabulated, Switzerland sadly gets bumped off the Top Ten list (the U.S. wins that one, even beating the legendary industry of the Japanese and the population-giant China who come in second and third respectively (according to 2008 GDP figures).

Switzerland still makes #21 on GDP alone, a real feat for a country that is one-tenth the size of Montana.

Thoughts of Switzerland’s relative wealth came to mind as I walked past Biel’s preeminent town drunk, a roguish, handsome white-haired man with an unfortunately crushed nose.

He is the fellow of whom I wrote early into our stay here, the same man who urinates openly in the square in front of the train station. He usually keeps to himself, and everyone gives him a wide berth, what with the urination thing, but lately he’s started lurching at passersby. It unnerves everyone, but he remains a fixture at the train station. He is the same fellow, by the way, who made loud freaky sounds as he walked behind me on one of the canal walkways.

Back in Canada, I’ve interviewed lots of homeless people, drunks, mentally ill, and so forth. People always talk about how harmless they are, but that is the same kind of wisdom that says bears are more afraid of us than we are of them, in other words, it’s bunk.

I’ve never felt completely safe in the presence of those who hand over their sensibilities to a bottle of booze or the drug-confection-of-the-day. These are ridiculously unpredictable people. As a reporter, where my job was to face up to them and engage in conversation, I found them somewhat fascinating, mostly because they weave such great fictions.

I know it’s politically incorrect to say so, but the volume of lies told to me by street people is amazing in its pure bulk, and mostly I discovered those lies by standing around long enough for the drug addict/drunk/street person to forget their original story and start into a second one.

On one occasion, I interviewed a man who alleged he had been roughed up by the police. I asked for his name. He gave it. Then he waved some kind of summons or ticket in my face to prove he had interacted with Victoria’s finest. I asked to see it and saw the name on the summons differed from that which he gave me. When I asked about this, he grabbed the summons and quickly fled on his bike. At least it may have been his bike. Give the high rate of bike theft in Victoria, I would guess he had “borrowed” it. This was not an unusual exchange.

Where this all goes is this: Switzerland is rich, and with a lauded social safety net, and yet we still have citizens veering on the streets with open beer cans in hand.

Yesterday, outside of a grocery store, I watched a few of the town drunk regulars (who have not risen to preeminent status) heckle a white-haired woman, her back a badly disfigured mountain range curved over so that she was a virtual comma when in her best upright position. She pulled her grocery cart past them, stumping along with her cane and unable to effect any getaway should one be needed. She kept her gaze fixed resolutely ahead while they shouted at her. I am not much in the way of personal protection, but I rushed up to walk just slightly behind and alongside her, signalling to the vagrants that perhaps she was my aged relative and my glare silenced the drunks who turned their attention in the opposite direction, as though perhaps they had been yelling at the crows.

Smarter people than me have puzzled over the problems of deviant behavior, drug addiction and such, but it seems that a crippled senior should be able to fetch some milk and eggs without having to run a gauntlet of yahoos.

We haven’t fixed this social ill  in Canada, but we shouldn’t feel too bad about this. If the Swiss with their smarts, industry and attention to detail haven’t figured it out yet, how could we?

Rain

Rain, rain please do stay. I can't take another hot day.

In non-news, yesterday we watched a never-seen-anywhere-else-we’ve-lived  weather-induced phenomenon (I am trying to break a hyphenated-sentence record).

While out on our evening stroll through downtown, heavy rain started pouring, driving many shoppers to line up execution-style, their backs pressed tight against the buildings for shelter in that miniscule 18-inch ribbon of dry pavement next to the wall.

Witnessing this led me to reflect on what this unique behavior would lead to in other parts of the world.

Do this in the Pacific Northwest and you’ll be waiting for the weather to clear from November til April. Try it in Manitoba or North Dakota and soon a sheath of ice will form over you, rendering you immobile until spring.

Lining up in this fashion in a giant American metropolis will lead criminals to assume you are volunteering to be relieved of your wallet or purse, getting you mugged within two minutes. The good news is that ambulance attendants will arrive to get you out of the rain, although you will be in a prone position, likely for quite some time. If you are single, this is even better as you are about meet a lot of doctors, just as your mother always hoped. You might not look your best, but the doctors will be too busy checking your intubation tube to notice. See how a little rain can change your life?

In Victoria, British Columbia, muggers are more polite and will ask for your money instead. Many would-be robberies are aborted in this way as the prospective victim is often unaware he has a role to play. And in true Victoria form, the mugger will be too polite to point out this faux pas to the victim, and let it pass. This happens dozens of times a day there.

In Australia, line up against a wall and someone will hand you a beer. Do this in Spain’s Plaza Mayor and locals will assume you’ve had too much beer,  search you for it and take it away.

Our view: Not very attractive, but not so bad. The buildings absorb the sound of ambulances screaming down our street. I'm not joking. We rarely hear them from inside our courtyard-flat.

I did wonder how long the Swiss would stand there, but as it turned out, the locals knew what they were doing. Within a few minutes, the rain paused in an orderly polite Swiss manner (just  as it started, quickly and on time) and the crowds meandered back onto the roadway. I should point out, this area is a no-car zone, so no tremendous traffic excitement ensued.  In the meantime, the Swiss had a sociable time chattering with their fellow rain-refugees,  presumably about the weather.

In other news that matters to no one in particular, yesterday I was told twice that I speak French very well, proving that you can get by in a foreign language on only two sentences, as long as you pronounce them very well.

And finally, I’ve been told I am living a rich-lady-life, which sounds pretty glamorous, but in the interest of truth, allow me to dispel that myth by sharing the view outside of our flat.

Plants that I plan to neglect.

Face-to-face with a government bureaucrat

Have just finished reading up on friends’ travels through places tropic populated with elephants and water buffaloes and have to say: Glad I’m not there.

Her hubby had to run back to Canada to deal with errant tenants, leaving the wife in a village hut with a sheet for a door. She was recovering from Dengue fever, which made her feel as though her bones were broken.

I suppose it’s part of the adventure, but if Dave left me in a remote village with cantankerous ungulates and a fabric lock-less door, heck would follow.

But she is having fun, if catching tropical diseases can be called that, and good for her.

Me, I’m still comfy in my home with plenty of solid doors, but not for long.

The trip to the Swiss Consulate was a disappointment.

The traffic into Vancouver was non-existent and we virtually whisked our way down to Canada Place on the shores of the Burrard Inlet. We found the Consulate with only a little fuss, were admitted immediately and met with a polite and exceedingly helpful bureaucrat who in under 15 minutes gave Dave his visa and said I could get through the border without trouble and finish up my visa application while in Switzerland.

“It will take about a week,” she said.

This ruins everything.

I’ve set my expectation-o-meter to “appalled” and having reality smack my worldview around requires that I get a new attitude. Matters worsened on the ferry ride home when we ran into friends returning from holiday and passed the 90-minute journey over coffee discussing how their car got broken into while on their week away. I loved this story. It was proof that travel is annoying.

The car-break-in, however, was interrupted by security and so the car was undamaged and nothing was stolen. More proof that I am wrong that travel is just asking for trouble.

This has put me in a dour mood, but things are looking up: It appears that the amount of stuff I need to pack will exceed the space available in our suitcases, thanks to the airline’s recent baggage allowance changes.

Ah, something to be miserable about … that’s the stuff.