Sunday, December 7, 2014

Chalet Shenanigans - Chapter 33

Big Time Bucket List Cross Off

I last left you as we were leaving Beijing.  We had a driver, who spoke no English but smiled a lot, who took us to our next destination, Mutianyu, which is an area out in the Chinese countryside about 2 hours away from Beijing.  This is, as far as I know, the closest place to access the Great Wall if you are in Beijing.  The Great Wall is really, really long and there are loads of other places that you can go hike along it, but we only had two days before we left for Cambodia, so Mutianyu it was.

On the way, just outside of Beijing, we had the driver stop for a quick detour so that we could see the Olympic Village.  The Chinese really went all out on this—it was very upscale and modern.  Remember the swimming venue that looked like a big clump of bubbles that the commentators called the Water Cube?  Well, it’s now an indoor water park.  Here is a poster on the outside of the building promoting the wave pool inside.  Please note how many people are in the pool.  Never in a million years would I get in that.  Hello, Ebola!

Mutianyu is a village surrounded by four or five other teeny, tiny villages all connected by a series of windy, skinny roads.  Our “hotel”, (16 rooms—only hotel around for miles), was called the Brickyard.  In English.  Our poor driver, who was from the big city, was utterly and completely lost and we, of course, were absolutely no help.  Picture driving around the same 20 back roads over and over and over again for 90 minutes.  Like a Nascar race.  Around and around and around with Mr. Big getting more and more and more pissed off every time we passed the same landmarks.

It was like the Perfect Storm of problems.  First, Mr. Big was not completely clear as to the exact NAME of the hotel.  (I know, kind of important, right?)  He thought it was “The Brickyard” which was a part of a complex known as “The SchoolHouse”.  He had no address and he did not think this was important because it is the only hotel with indoor plumbing within 10 miles of Mutianyu.

Second, whenever our driver tried to translate “schoolhouse” and “brickyard” to the locals that he was stopping to ask every 5 meters, they kept trying to send him to a school or an actual brickyard.

Third, and at the same time as the driver was interrogating/terrorizing the locals, Mr. Big was on the phone with the real Brickyard trying to explain to them where in the Sam Hill we were BY USING ONLY VISUALS BECAUSE HE COULD NOT READ ONE WORD ON ANY SIGN.

“Uh, yeah, this is Mr. Big again.  OK, now we are sitting in a tiny car park in the middle of a village.  There’s, um, a bus stop and a statue of some guy with a funny hat on.  There’s a bench and a man leading a donkey.  Which way do we turn?”

After an hour and a half of this jolliness, some random old man on the street told our driver to proceed down an alley, (which was clearly marked “Do Not Enter” in Chinese by the way that our driver was throwing his hands up in the air and arguing with our new friend), and continue on a dirt path which cut across some farmer’s sheep field which led to another road that we had already traveled on 6 times.  Y’all, the sign for the “hotel” was a little brass plaque embedded in a brick gate post, about 6 inches by 10 inches.  That’s it.  That was the only indication that, behind a nondescript brick wall, lay a hotel.  Yeah, sure, once you get behind the brick wall, there is a bigger sign THAT YOU CANNOT SEE FROM THE ROAD.  I’m just saying.

So, if you are going some day, here is the real scoop.  A British guy and his Chinese wife bought an old school house in Mutianyu and renovated it.  Associated with this property but not actually at that physical location are 8 individual guest houses where you can stay.  At the actual school house is a restaurant, a bar and a gift shop/art gallery.

In another village altogether called Beigou, this Brit bought an old, you guessed it, brickyard and turned it into a small, trendy, boutique hotel.  It turned out to be awesome and I highly recommend it, if you can find it.  Tell your driver Beigou, not Mutianyu.  Very important.   As for GPS, the only address for The Brickyard is Beigou Village.  That’s it.  Good luck.  Look for a brick post and a small brass plaque.

Anyway, now for my Hallelujah moment.  Stumbling into the lobby, lugging our bags and badly
needing a stiff drink, Mr. Big and I were stopped in our tracks by the sight of what these Brickyard people had decorating their lobby.  Roof tiles!  Oh, my God!  Look at them in all of their shining gloriousness!  You will remember that when I asked Cherry where to find them, she told me that since I lacked Emperor status I was shit out of luck, right?  Now the question became, were these Brickyard folks going to sell me their lobby décor or was I going to try my hand at thievery?

 I promise you, I was not leaving that badly-signed hotel without those little roof animals.  They even had the dragon!  And the little man riding the chicken!  Be still my heart.

Since we had squandered so much time being lost, there was not time to go up to the wall that afternoon.  Instead, we hiked to Mutianyu, (we already knew the way quite well, thank you, no map necessary), had a drink at the SchoolHouse and checked out the gondola complex that would take us up the mountain to the wall the next day.  All the while, I was planning my approach to finagle the people at the hotel out of their tschotskes.

After a dip in the hot tub with a view of the Great Wall, which didn’t suck, I was ready for battle.  I had already decided that I was going to plead that I was a descendant of one of the concubines, who had somehow moved to America at some point.  I had convinced myself that this was feasible.  I told none of this to Mr. Big.  Later:

Me:  Hello, I was wondering about the availability of the roof tiles there on the bookshelf?

Them:  Availability?

Me:  Er, yes.  I would like to buy one.  Or five.

Them:  Five?

Me:  Yes.  And the dragon.  And the chicken man.

After checking with the owner, the gal in the lobby told me the whole story.  The Brit bought the brickyard specifically because it was the old, actual brickyard that supplied ancient Beijing and the Emperor with bricks and roofing tiles.  When the Brit acquired the property, he also acquired all of the stock that had been sitting around for decades.  There were SO MANY old roof tiles, (not the animal kind, the plain kind), they broke them all up into mosaic pieces and tiled the floors, hallways, walkways, walls, etc. of the new hotel with the old tiles.  They saved all of the existing animal tiles.  Since they only had three dragons and they suspected that these were the last three dragons left “in the wild” that were not already ensconced on somebody’s roof, they would not sell me a dragon.  Greedy bastards.

BUT!  They let me buy three animals and one chicken man with no head.  Why no head?  Because the heads were subcontracted out, back in the day, to some artist.  The brickyard just made the phoenix.  (It’s actually a phoenix, but it looks like a really big chicken.)  So, today, in Lausanne, perched upon a Chinese bench that I already owned, I have my string of roof tiles, sans dragon and sans head.  They are awesome and they make me happy every time I look at them.  I should send a picture of them to Cherry and be like “nyah, nyah, nyah”.

Anticlimactically, we went to the Great Wall the next morning.  We took hundreds of pictures but I
am only including pictures of girls in party dresses and Easter hats just to prove to you that I was not lying in the previous post.  Please understand, these are all different people taken at different times throughout the day doing various activities at the Great Wall, where Mr. Big and I were wearing serious hiking clothes and sweating our butts off.

The way this wall thing works is you take the cable car up the mountain, hike along the wall for however long you want and go back down via a bob-sled ride.  The translations of the rules and regulations posted inside the gondola were hilarious.  For example, the first one was “Passengers:  Hanging chair smoking.”  Well, I hope not!

The rules for the bob-sled on the way down were printed on everyone’s ticket.  They were called

“Stipulations for Skidding”.

Rule #1:  Patients with heart disease, hypertension, dizziness or those on whom medicines have effects can not ride the skid.

Rule #5:  Riders riding behind should be responsible for the accident when an accident collision

Rule #6:  You must obey the instructions of the safe workers.  Don’t touch the skid.

Wouldn’t lawyers have a field day with these “stipulations”?  I mean, don’t medicines have effects on everybody, i.e. no one should be riding these skids?  Rest assured that I obeyed the instructions of all of the safe workers.  The unsafe workers, however, I completely ignored as per Rule #6.

We flew out of Beijing the next morning, destination:  Siem Reap, Cambodia and the Angor Wat temples.  And Google.  And Facebook.  Yay!  Talk soon, enjoy the pix.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Chalet Shenanigans - Chapter 32

Went to China and Missed the Memo on Easter Dresses

I’ve got to hurry up and write this blog post about our hilarious trip to China because we have another
trip coming up this weekend that has the potential to be even funnier and I don’t want to mix up my crazy.  We have planned a weekend wine tasting in Spain, (Easy, right?  No problem, right?), and I’ve been online for 8 hours trying to book wine-tasting tours in English and I am not having much luck. Actually, zero luck.  So, Mr. Big, who is in Istanbul right now, has no idea that he is going to be touring wineries for the next 72 hours in Spanish.  This promises to be awesome!

Ok, so.  China.  Had never been.  Always wanted to go.  This is all I knew about the country, itself:

1.        Ex-pats who get transferred to China live only among other ex-pats, not out in the wild.  Also,      they have a million servants who do everything from drive them around to cook their food to wipe their butts.

2.        The Great Wall is there.

3.       They eat with chopsticks.

4.       It’s a communist country.

5.       Whatever happened in Tiananmen Square was bad.  Fuzzy on the details, (like how to spell Tainanmen, which I just looked up).

This is what I knew about the Chinese people as a whole:

1.        They make lousy tourists.  They travel in packs of 200 and swarm all over monuments taking pictures so no one else can ever take a picture without at least 10 of them in it.

2.       For some inexplicable reason, they all wear rain hats.  All of the time.

3.       There are 800 kajillion of them.

4.       They are taking over the world.

5.       They are awesome at making cheap, reproduction shit that falls apart the second time you use/wash it or else poisons your babies with lead paint.

This was the extent of my knowledge and that’s really not a whole heck of a lot to go on, but you know I’m always up for an adventure and I really don’t care if I make a fool of myself as long as it does not escalate into an international incident.

The first day a person from the West lands in China is kind of a wash because you will be so tapped out from jet lag you could have landed on the moon and not known the difference.  Or cared.  You will climb in a taxi at the airport and tell the driver the name of your hotel.  He will not understand you.  You will pull out your iPhone and show him your hotel confirmation screen which will also be written in Chinese and he will take you there and you will sleep like a baby who has consumed a fifth of vodka.

The next morning, (or afternoon or evening or whenever you wake up from your coma), you will stumble out of your bed and into the bathroom where you will become puzzled and it will take your jet-lagged brain a few moments to figure out the toilet.  My toilet had a remote control panel on the wall that allowed for washing, pulsating and drying both my front and back unmentionables.  In a panic, I
quickly scanned around for regular old toilet paper which I was much relieved to see was right next to the toilet where it was supposed to be.  Having taken care of business,   I ran back into the bedroom to wake Mr. Big and get my camera.

“GET UP!  Come look at the freakin’ toilet!  It says it cleans your wand!  Get up, get up!”  And so life goes in our relationship.  The poor man was like, “huh? Whuh?  Do you have any Tylenol?”  To make matters worse, our computers had been hijacked by the People’s Republic.  Imagine opening up your computer and not being able to access Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.  Your computer works just fine, but every time you try to access anything except Yahoo, you get the following message:

“The page you are trying to access is rebooting.  Your patience is appreciated.”

So, you wait and you wait aaaaaaand nothing happens.  Nothing.   And since my email is through Google, I had no email access either.  It was like being transported back to 1985.  I feel sorry for the Chinese.  What is the point of having a computer if you can’t get on Facebook?  My laptop went back into my suitcase and it didn’t resurface until we crossed the border into Cambodia, where, by the way, all of those forbidden websites magically reappeared.

We only had one day to spend in Shanghai and it was more than enough.  Shanghai is like any really big, overcrowded city.   It had neighborhoods and shopping districts and a very nice waterfront along the Yangtze River.  We stayed in the Xintiandi district at the Langham Hotel here:

I did start to notice, though, some trends.  We visited quite a few neighborhoods and the shopping was quite upscale.  Like, really upscale.  The streets and malls were filled with upper, upper echelon shops.  No Target here, my friends.  No Macy’s.  It’s all Louis Vuitton and Chanel, all the time.  Now, I know full well that the Chinese flock to these kinds of shops while they are on vacation.  God knows I have watched thousands of them pack into the Coach boutique at the Galerie Lafayette in Paris while I am there shopping the twice-yearly sales simply trying to buy sheets.  But I only thought they shopped like that while they were on vacation.  If they can get this shit at home, why were they like crazy people in Lausanne trying to buy their Rolex watches and Bally bowling shoes?

Also, I started to notice the dress code.  It was raining that day in Shanghai and yet, a large number of the girls/ladies were wearing dresses and high heels.  These were not work dresses, mind you, they were full-on twirly sundresses with four-inch strappy sandals.  Hmm, I was thinking.  Do the Chinese go to church on Thursdays?  What’s the deal with the party clothes?

We moved on the next day to Beijing where I was hoping to see a little more native culture.  Really, Shanghai could have been Chicago if everyone in Chicago was tiny, skinny, had black hair and wore an Easter dress.  We stayed in The Peninsula Hotel in Beijing here: which was fine and very close to, you guessed it, more upscale shopping.  I don’t know where the Chinese are getting all of their money but I can tell you that they like spending it.  If it has a pricey brand name plastered on it, the Chinese will buy it.

I am so used to Switzerland where everyone is very conservative and flashing your money around is the height of tackiness, (I dare you to find a Swiss person who owns a bright, red car or a diamond-encrusted anything), that it was disconcerting seeing an entire population walking around like living billboards.  I didn’t even know Ralph Lauren made a shirt with a polo player that big on it.  The logo was bigger than the head of the guy wearing the shirt.

Beijing was shaping up to be another Shanghai, so Mr. Big arranged a private tour the next day to seek
out some “culture”.  Our guide was named Cherry, which wasn’t her real name but she said we couldn’t pronounce her name so we all just went with “Cherry”.  Not Really Cherry showed up in the lobby of the Peninsula hotel  in a rain hat even though it was sunny and hot and she was thoroughly perplexed by Mr. Big’s email that had requested a trip to a flea market before hitting the Forbidden City.

“Why you want to go to Frea Mahket, Missah Beeg?  Ees not so nice praice.  Not so nice spot.  Ees furr of tings made in China.”

“Well, Cherry, that’s the point.  We might find a Chinese treasure of some kind to take back to Switzerland.  This is exactly the kind of praice, er, place, that my wife and I like to visit.”

“Ok, ok, but I terring you that you not gonna fine anyting you rike.  But we go because you are boss.”

Cherry was actually correct and we didn’t find anything there to buy.  It was indeed all made in China crap.  I did find, however, a cool vintage poster of Chairman Mao but Mr. Big talked me out of it.  Really, Trailing Spouse?  And what, pray tell, are you going to do with a poster of Chairman Mao’s big fat face on it once you get home?  Hang it in the chalet next to the snowshoes?  Save your yuan for something you really like.  He (and Cherry) were right, so I left empty-handed.

We left the “antique” market much to Cherry’s delight and made our way to the Forbidden City, which is a series of palaces and temples inside a high wall inside the center of Beijing, where the emperor, his
wife, all of his concubines and his 5,000 kids used to live.  Now, I am no historian but I am pretty sure that this is where China’s overpopulation problem started.  If the leader of a country is screwing a couple of hundred women and producing thousands of children, can there be any doubt that this kind of example will lead to overpopulation?  I think not.

The entrance to the Forbidden City was where the concept of 1.4 billion Chinese really hit home.  I think they were all at the Forbidden City that day.  The line to get in the place at the General Admission area was staggering.  Keep in mind it was about 100 degrees F and bright sunshine.  Every single person, except the non-Chinese tourists, was either carrying an umbrella or wearing a sun hat.  I asked Cherry why they hated the sun so much.  She looked at me, literally, shocked.

“Why, Meesus Big!  We want to be just rike you!  White, white, white rike snow!”

Anyone who knows me is surely laughing right now, because I am very dark complected.  Thanks to my Cherokee great-grandma, I am the color of Bananas Foster all year round.  I held out my hand and put it against Cherry’s, which was the color of kindergarten paste.  Well, I said, “it’s working!”

The umbrellas and the hats are a cultural thing.  Y’all, the women even wore fingerless gloves during the day, sometimes up to their elbows, to avoid the sun.  I get it.  To be tanned in China means one is a laborer or a field worker and is out in the sun all day.  Ergo, they all, even the men, carry umbrellas or wear hats to stay “white rike snow”.   This didn’t explain the Easter dresses, however.  The only explanation I could get out of Cherry as to why everybody was dressed to the nines was, “Fashion?”  If someone reading this blog can explain this phenomenon to me, it would be greatly appreciated.

I did learn, though, that the Chinese have a sense of humor.  A couple walked by us who were obviously Chinese but were talking to each other very loudly in English.  Not Really Cherry glanced at them and said to us under her breath, “they bananas”.

Huh?  Bananas?  I looked around for a fruit seller thinking Cherry needed a little mid-morning pick-me-up.

Cherry shook her head at my confusion and said, “what we call American Chinese tourists.  Bananas.  Yerrow on outside, white on inside.  Rike bananas.”

OMG, Cherry, please.  If you EVER go to America, DO NOT call anyone a banana.  In fact, best to stay clear of fruit-related jokes altogether.

The Forbidden City was pretty, but it was so hot and so crowded that we zipped on through at about 3 times the normal speed only stopping to take pictures of the roof tiles.  Yes, I had found a Chinese “treasure” that I wanted to hunt down, buy and take home.  Roof tiles, sometimes called roof charms,
are a train of little animals found on the corner of buildings that signify how important the people inside might be.  At the back of the train there is always a dragon, then a series of 1 to 10 other animals and then, in the front of the line, a little Chinese man riding a phoenix.  I loved them!  Cherry, where do I find these roof charms?  Again, with the horrified stare.

“Meesus Big!  These are for emperor and his priests and his famiry.  No for you and me.  No way.  Onry found here in Forbidden City and at buildings arong the Great Wall.”

“Cherry, sweetie, I don’t want to buy these actual ones!  I’m not talking about monument robbing here!  This is the land of reproductions.  Surely there must be some factory somewhere churning out these little cuties by the millions, no?”

Apparently not.  Fake Foo dogs, yes.  Fake Ming vases, yes.  Fake roof charms, no.  I made a note to google them as soon as I got out of China and got my Google back.

That night we went to the Calle de Shopping, which is a little inside joke in our family.  When Charming Daughter was at university, she did one semester in Salamanca, Spain.  She and all of her friends called the main shopping street in Salamanca the Calle de Shopping.  (Calle is Spanish for street, pronounced “kai-yay”, rhymes with “highway”).  In all of the years since, our fam refers to the main shopping street in any European city the Calle de Shopping.  The Parisians might call it Rue Saint-Honoré , but in my family it is still the Calle de Shopping.   I know it’s not funny but inside jokes are never funny to other people.

On the Beijing Calle de Shopping, the street food vendors sell some crazy shit, let me tell you.  If it
breathes, it can be fried and put on a stick and eaten in China.

At first, during my photo-taking frenzy, I was sure that the vendors were putting this stuff out as a joke to attract tourists, which it so was, but then I began to notice girls in Easter dresses actually eating lizards and beetles and testicles on sticks so now I am not so sure.

On the other hand, the Chinese probably think pork rinds and fried okra are gross, too, so who is to say who is right and who is wrong, huh?  That’s why we travel, right?  To watch people smack their gums over something some of us would be more inclined to either step on or exterminate with a powerful chemical.

Enjoy the pictures.  I will start writing China Part II this weekend wherein we left Cherry and the big
cities behind and went out into the countryside to a little village called Mutianyu and hiked along the Great Wall.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Chalet Shenanigans - Chapter 31

Etiquette:  How to Deal with Neighbors Who Destroy Your Balcony and, also, Swiss Parks in the Summertime

I have had my first opportunity to really lay into somebody in French and, I must say, it has all been rather satisfying.  Here’s the situation:  it is now summer in Central and Northern Europe and that means two things.

1)       Construction season has begun.   We have a very short opportunity to construct things here and when it happens, it happens with authority.
2)      Simultaneously, people with blindingly white bodies start popping up everywhere in limited clothing.

Concerning the first, everything is under construction.  I mean everything.  The roads, new housing, small renovation projects, everything.  It’s all out from under the snow and ready to be dug up and changed in some form or another.

There’s an empty lot directly in front of our chalet that has had a building permit on it since last summer so, we knew, that at some point this year, a construction crew was going to arrive and everything was going to go to Hell in a handbasket.  Which it did, rather quickly.  The man on the very large backhoe who was digging the foundation for our new neighbors kept nibbling and nibbling and nibbling away until, eventually, he compromised the necessary EARTH that was holding up our deck and we had a Jack and Jill moment. 
(For those of you whose langue maternelle is not English and who will not understand that reference, our terrace fell down the hill.)  Not only did he destroy our deck, he also broke our main sewer drain and, consequently, all of our poop and our pee and our shower water commenced to rain down directly into his big dirt pit.  Yaaay, poop!  You go, poop!  

The owners of the property, from Alsace, ( a region in France), arrived one weekend last month to check on their investment and to assess the progress and they were, of course, appalled that their backhoe guy had destroyed our terrace.  I swear to God, they walked up our driveway to introduce themselves looking like they were headed to their own execution.

Me:  Bonjour, (the rest of this was all in French, but I will write it here in English), how’s it going? 
Them:  Hello, um, not too badly.  How are you?
Me:  Not so good, actually.  As you can plainly see, your worker has destroyed my terrace.    By the way, my name is Trailing Spouse and that man glowering at you in the corner is my husband, Mr. Big.  Mr. Big doesn’t speak any French so he will just continue to glower and grunt from a distance, if that is okay with y’all.
Them:  Oh, dear God.
Me:  So, what is the plan, boys, to fix my deck?
The Older Man of the Group:  Well, I have vacationed here in this village for 20 years and I had heard through the grapevine that you were American and that you were really nice and friendly and, uh, also, that you didn’t speak French.  Your French, by the way, is very good!
Me:  Surprise, suckah!
Needless to say, they fixed the plumbing issue and they are building a new retaining wall and a new  deck. Whatever money my husband has had to spend on my French classes has now paid for itself ten times over.  Also, I now have a really good cocktail party story.

The new neighbors have been to visit every weekend since then and they always bring us a nice bottle of white wine from Alsace, so I am trying to be very nice to them whilst maintaining a position of authority and indignation.  It’s a slippery slope, no pun intended.  But, the wine has been great.
 Meanwhile, and, more importantly to those Swiss ex-pats who are counting on me for my nuggets of info, here are the rules for visiting Swiss public parks.  Please keep in mind that I only know the mid-day rules because I’ve never been before noon and also that these rules apply to the part of the park that is furthest away from the playground.  I have no idea what the rules of etiquette are for playgrounds, (although I can imagine that if the playgrounds are full of Swiss children, they will be the quietest playgrounds in the world).

Between Noon and 13:30
1.        Leave work, or in my case, the apartment, walk to park, bring bagged lunch and towel or blanket.
2.       Find lovely spot on grass IN FULL SHADE.
3.       Spread blanket, unpack lunch, uncork wine, take off shoes and socks, roll up pant legs, skin off every layer that you can and still be decent.  (This is not because you are trying to get a tan, this is because you are trying not to sweat too much in your work clothes.
4.       This IS NOT the time for sunbathing.  This is lunch time.  Ergo, between 12 and 1:30, if you were in a helicopter looking down on a municipal park in Switzerland, it would appear as if it were empty because everyone is hiding under the trees.
5.       Keep track of the movement of the sun.  As the sun moves, so should your blanket as to
            avoid all exposure to stray UV rays.
6.       If you spy someone during these hours in just a bikini bottom in full sun with a little white poodle WHO HAS ITS’ OWN TOWEL and said towel is in the shade so as not to cook the dog, that person is French and none of these rules apply.  I swear, the machinations that this woman went through to keep her towel in the sun and the dog’s towel in the shade kept me entertained for an hour and a half.

After 13:30
1.        The coast is now clear for sunbathers. 
2.       You must be female.
3.       You must be skinny.
4.       You must wear a string bikini.
5.       Everyone else must remain semi-clothed and under the trees.

And, should you happen to stroll through this same park in the evening, in spite of the fact that there  were hundreds of people there that afternoon, you will not see one piece of trash, one cigarette butt, one dog turd or one homeless person passed out on a bench.   After a few years you will become accustomed to this cleanliness and orderliness and everywhere else in the world looks shockingly dirty and “unSwiss”. 

*The pictures of the parks in Lausanne that you see here are not mine; I found them on the internet.  It would be beyond gauche to sit in the park and take photos of people trying to eat or sunbathe.  The pictures of my sad, sad terrace are, however, all mine.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Chalet Shenanigans - Chapter 30

From Prince to Jesus in One Day

Well, hey, everyone!  Long time no talk!  Yes, I am still here in Switzerland, workin’ on Year Six of the Great Ex-Pat Adventure.  Where does the time go? 

Life keeps getting in the way of my blog.  I apologize.  I will catch you up in two paragraphs.  We are having the landscaping redone at the chalet and putting in a hot tub.  We have also begun researching and visiting chateaux with vineyards to buy for our retirement. (Well, Mr. Big’s retirement.  I retired six years ago and am not ashamed to admit that it beats the hell out of working).

We went to Abu Dhabi and Amsterdam earlier this year, and, while interesting, nothing happened that was amusing enough to be considered blog-worthy.

Small Son graduated from college and found a wonderful job.  He and his girlfriend and a cat live in a cute apartment in the mountains in North Carolina and all is well.  That is Kid Number Three off the meter and my work here is done, folks.  Charming Daughter lives with her boyfriend and, yes, another cat, in a chic townhouse in Atlanta and they are living the young, urban lifestyle dream. 
Domestic Son and his wife are busy trying to raise the next generation and are all caught up with Middle School Angst, Little League and Pampers.  They have no cat but, I believe, Grand Number Two has a few goldfish.  Nutshell.  Boom.

So, life was just moving along at a steady clip and I was not really focusing on this blog when, suddenly, I slept with a prince and that changed everything.

Last month, I was trying to find somewhere to go “off the beaten path” for the Easter holidays.  There’s a region in Italy called Puglia which is way down in the heel of the boot that is not yet overrun by tourists and still retains its’ authentic, rustic, (sometimes gritty), charm.    I was under the impression that the Brits had discovered this area but not yet the Chinese nor the Americans.  (Wrong.)

Anyway, the closest airport is in Brindisi (which you will probably have never heard of) and our flight wasn’t due to land until 10:30 p.m. so I went on booking.comto find a hotel CLOSE to Brindisi but not actually IN Brindisi.  Brindisi was supposed to be gross and avoided at all costs, especially at 10:30 at night.  I found what looked like a hotel on the website, (please note the phrase “LOOKED like a hotel”), in a village called San Vito dei Normanni only eight miles or so away from the airport.

Cool!, I’m thinking.  The hotel is an actual castle from the 11th century!  Wow!  We will stay there for two nights before we move onto the gnome house!  (“gnome house” will be explained later).  I booked my two nights in the Castello Dentice di Frasso.  Here is the link and you tell me that this does not look like a legit hotel: Legit Hotel?

Of course, our flight from Rome was delayed, (Air Italia is run just like the rest of Italia, which is to say not very punctually), so we figured out that we were going to be pulling on in to the castle around 11:30-ish instead of 10:30.  Being kind of Swiss now, we thought we would call ahead from the Rome airport to let the hotel know that A) we were going to be late (which is a criminal offense in Switzerland) and B) we were therefore going to need somebody to stay up late to meet us at reception.

This is the point where the vacation started to become blog-worthy.  When Mr.  Big called the hotel from the Rome airport, I knew immediately something was wrong because his face started to sweat.  And he started talking in baby-talk.  Like “we no be there on time.  We late.  Plane is late.  Midnight.”  And then he just shoved the phone at me like he thought I had magically learned to speak Italian in the last hour or something.  But, because I have been married to this man since the Stone Age, I knew that this was his way of saying, “Here, Trailing Spouse.  You speak to this hotel person who speaks no English. You are responsible for this nightmare and let the record show that I wanted to go to Vegas.”

Luckily, Italian and French are very, very close, so when the nice man on the other end of the phone told me that his spoken English sucked but that he could read and write much better so please text instead (because, undoubtedly, he would be using Google Translate on the other end), I understood him perfectly and once again Mr. Big and I were in good shape and on our way.  Signore Hotel Guy told me to text him once we had arrived in San Vito dei Normanni and he would open the gates to the castle, which I did.  And there he was waiting for us and he directed us to park inside the castle walls and up we went into the castle at 12:15 in the morning.

Please remember that, at that point, Mr. Big and I were still thinking we were at a hotel and that this man was a hotel employee of some kind.  He woke up his wife whom he said spoke “molto bene Inglese”, (um, no and whomever told you that was lying,) and they gave us the nickel tour of the outer rooms and then showed us to our bedroom.  And here, only here, is where I began to start to think that something might be a little “off”.

It was not a bedroom.  It was an apartment.  The balcony alone was bigger than my apartment in Lausanne.  It was furnished with BEAUTIFUL antiques.  I mean real antiques.  The pair of mirrors over the dressers was nothing you would ever consider putting in a hotel.  Ever.  In the dressing room, the bathroom scale was an antique upright model like what you’d find in your doctor’s office.  There was a porcelain hook in the bathroom from which was hanging a long shoehorn for riding boots carved out of bone.  In a REAL hotel room, that sucker would’ve been stolen in less time that it took for me to write this sentence.  I was thinking, “Oh, Mr. Big, I fear that something has gone wrong here in my interpretation of the very innocent entry.  Very wrong.”

Having established the night before that we would “like to dine” in the breakfast room at around 9:00   There was a maid waiting to greet us who walked us through the library and into the breakfast room.  The table, (the ONE table), which could easily seat 8 was set for, you guessed it, two.  Me and Mr. Big.  “Must be the slow season,” I remember thinking.  At that point, the wife from the night before made an appearance and she went on and on about “HER” lemon and orange marmalades from “HER” garden and “please to try—they aredelicioso”.   We finished breakfast with the maid hovering eerily in the corner the whole time ready to fulfill our slightest desire.  Most awkward breakfast ever. 
a.m., we emerged from our room for said meal at 8:59, because we are so very, very Swiss.

The midnight tour the night before hadn’t satiated my natural curiosity about the Castello.  I had brought my camera to breakfast fully planning on touring the whole “hotel” after finishing our meal.  I was adjusting the focus on the incredible ceiling in the Men’s Smoking Room when I got a prickle on the back of my neck.  Not only had the maid followed us into the “Fumoire”, but Signore Hotel Guy was also standing in the doorway.  Since it was a little early for port and cigars, I figured that they wanted something else.  Probably for me to stop taking pictures.

Me:  Buon giorno, signore!  Everything is so lovely here!   Is it OK if I take some pictures inside the hotel?

Signore:  (In broken English, remember, he only texts), Uh, no, please.  Is not hotel.  Is my home.  (Pointing to oil painting above doorway)  Is my grandfather.

Me:  (Pointing to lady who made the jam who was hovering behind the maid)  Aha!  And she is your Prinicipessa, no?

Signore who is now Principe:  Si!  Si!  (Much beaming and head nodding that we had now got THAT straightened out).

It didn’t, however, answer the question of how his castle found its’ way to me via the internet.  So, over the course of the next two days I became pals with the Prince, (because I am extremely nosy),  and it turns out that he and his wife are the only people in all of Italy who still own and live in their original family castle and no other family or entity has ever owned it.  (I don’t know if I believe this because Italy is a big place, but the Prince was quite proud of this fact and so I cut him a break and didn’t express my extreme skepticism). 

We had drinks with the Dentices.  (This is pronounced don-tuh-sees.  Their  whole last name is don-tuh-see-dee-frasso, which rhymes with El Paso.)  We had snacks.  We borrowed a corkscrew.  We met the twin heirs to the throne (age 9) who would not speak to us even though their mother was yelling at them in Italian that this was a perfect opportunity to practice their English.  We toured the gardens.  We inspected the original family tree over the fireplace.  He pointed out his great grandmother whose sister was married to the Archduke Ferdinand who was killed and brought about WW One.  (He was proud of this!)  He showed me the portraits of his aunt and uncle who had the NERVE to SELL their castle in the next village.  (He was absolutely appalled by this.)

In short, we bonded and I felt comfortable enough to ask him before we left what on God’s green earth he was thinking billing his castle as a hotel on

Principe:  Ah, Signora.  Is for future, no?  We want to have many, many rooms here.  In future.   In basement.  We want swimming pool.  We have many, many plans.  For future.  But village, they tella me no, no, no.  No turna castello into hotela.  Is forbidden.  Alora, for now is just one room.  But you lika the room, yes? You write on internet how mucha you lika room, yes?

Yes, Prince.  I like your style.  You are planning ahead.  I will go one better.  I will write on a blog for all the world to see how cool it was to chill with you.  I will even tell the people that this is the only “hotel” I’ve ever stayed in in Italy that had an outlet in the bathroom for my flat iron.  Although, in the future, when you open up your dungeon to paying guests, you need to put more than two towels in the bathroom.  Even though I enjoyed seeing how royalty monograms their towels: D di F; there need to be more than two.  Really, friends, if you are looking for an adventure and you are in Puglia, go stay with the Dentices.  And then you, too, can say you slept with a prince.

Onto the gnome house.  The entire reason people are “discovering” the region of Puglia is because of little, tiny houses called “trulli”.  These miniature abodes are only found in one valley, the Val d’Itria, and they are scattered out in the country and they are piled on top of one another in the villages.  Apparently, the story goes that, back in medieval times, the king declared that any “new” villages would be taxed according to the number of houses in the village.  So, the Principes, YES, HIM!, instructed all of their serfs to build little, tiny round houses out of dry stacked stone and make them look like huts for animals.

When the king’s men came around to collect the taxes the Princes stood up on their castle balconies and said, village?  What village?  Those little huts yonder are for the pigs and the sheep.  Ain’t no village, here, buddy.  Of course, meanwhile, those Princes were shoving families of 10 and 12 into huts roughly the size of a baby’s Port-A-Crib.  Medieval times were just not very pretty, were they? 

Anyway, today, in that perverse way that we cherish in modern times, people come from all over the globe and spend good, hard-earned cash to sleep in these tiny trulli which used to house three generations plus cattle, just because they can.  And I cannot begin to tell you how incongruous it is to see a bunch of Chinese tourists with their 1,000 dollar Nikons swarming over a medieval village THAT IS NOT READY FOR THEM.  This area of Italy is not quite prepared for the hordes that are descending upon them.  We stayed in the most “well-known” village, Alberobello, which is just trulli after trulli after trulli and it is beyond cute.  But.  There is, literally, no parking, especially not for buses.  There are not enough restaurants.  There are not enough bars.  There are plenty of ticky, tacky gift shops and there is PLENTY of potential, but the villagers are just overwhelmed at this point.  Bless their hearts.  They ONLY speak Italian and they have no idea what to do with busloads of Chinese people or Americans with gluten allergies.  Gluten-free pasta?  What?  Why?  Why would you want that?

So, I booked our trulli through Trulli Holiday, whose office is located in the center of town, but they own 15 trulli scattered throughout the village.  It’s a crap shoot, really, which trulli you will wind up in.  But, it doesn’t really matter because the entire village is about as big as a Super Wal-Mart and you can’t park anywhere near any of the trulli anyway because the whole town is an UNESCO world heritage site, so it’s pretty irrelevant which EXACT trulli you get.  (I say this because there are a bunch of Americans on Trip Advisor who are complaining about the fact that they had to WALK UP A HILL or PARK 50 FEET AWAY or, the best:  OUR TRULLI WAS SMALL.  Really, American Person?  It’s a trulli.  If you want to stay in a big place, go visit the Principe.)

You will recall that this was Easter weekend and Italy is a very, very catholic country.  Hence, the entertainment for the evening in Alberobello was a reenactment of that most historic weekend, from the Last Supper through the Crucifixion to the Reawakening or whatever the correct terminology is for all of these things. Forgive me, I am not religious and please keep that in mind while you read the following paragraphs.

When every other single soul in a village is going somewhere, you, naturally, follow.  As the entire village of Alberobello walked down the hill at 8:00 p.m., I turned to Mr. Big and said:

Me:  Dude.  I think that that play that we saw a poster of must be something big because everyone is walking down there.

Mr. Big:  Since when have you become interested in The Passion of the Christ?

Me:  Since never, but I think this could be hugely funny.  Do you think there will be live camels?

Mr. Big:  I think you are confusing the Ascension with Christmas.

Whatever, Mr. Big-Know-It-All.  We put on our coats, (another hint to complaining Americans, Italy is NOT always warm, considering it is on the same latitude as, like, Toronto), grabbed our cameras and marched down the hill.   Well, this was not some half-ass production.  This was legit outdoor theater in their 37th year of doing the same show.  All of the locals had seen it 37 times and knew the whole thing line by line, so they stood in the back.  The front was mobbed with tourists and so I pulled an “Auntie” (refer to earlier blog post) and weaseled my way around the Chinese and all of the kids right into the center spotlight.

Ok, it was cool.  There was Mary Magdalene at the well.  There were all of the saints around the wooden table and the feet washing and the whole nine yards. There were soldiers with helmets with brooms attached on their heads, (very clever, see picture, kudos to the costume designer), and caves and prisons and crosses, etc.  And then.  And then, there was Jesus.  Let me tell you, Jesus has improved since I last saw his picture in those Highlights magazines in the pediatrician’s office.  This Jesus looked like Hugh Jackman.  This was Hot Italian Jesus.  Hugh Jackman Jesus was enough to turn a heathen like me into a believer.   

Not enough of a believer to stay for the whole three hours, however.  We made it through about an hour and a half and we still hadn’t reached the gory part and I was ready to go. 

Me:  Mr. Big, have you had enough religious education for one night?

Mr. Big:  This woman behind me has been poking her zoom lens into my neck for the past 20 minutes.  I’m opting for a wine in my trulli.

Me:  Trulli it is!  Bye, Hugh Jesus!  Not to worry!  You will be really, really famous one day and have millions of Twitter followers even though it is not looking good for you right at this moment!

(Jeez, I know I am horrible and my Mormon relatives are gasping in disbelief right now, but he was REALLY cute!)  This blog post has gone on waaaaaay too long and there are some other things that I need to tell you about this region and the places that we went, but that can wait until next week.  Meanwhile, for my mother-in-law, here are some pictures and I promise that I will put some more on the Trailing Spouse Facebook page.  Ciao, everyone.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Chalet Shenanigans - Chapter 29

Finding a Fairy Tale Valley

From May to December, Mr. Big and I have had to find an activity that keeps us in shape for the next ski season.  We are old and if we went 6 months without exercising our legs we would undoubtedly pull any number of muscles the first time we put on our ski boots and hoofed it to the ski bus stop come December.

Our chosen activity is hiking.  Well, I say “our” but I really mean “my”.  Mountain hiking is not Mr. Big’s favorite thing because it involves heights and it involves uncertainty.  Me, I love not knowing
what wonderment I might meet just over the next hill.  Mr. Big likes a well-plotted, well-posted route that has obviously been used by many, many people.  If you could eavesdrop on our hikes, this is what you would hear:

Big:  Which way?

Me:  I dunno.  It sort of looks like the right hand route leads more directly to that village down there.

Big:  Well, what does the map say?  What do the signposts say?  What IS the name of that village down there?  That trail looks pretty skinny.  And cliff-y.

Me:  I can’t figure out the map, the signposts are vague, I have no idea what village that might be and don’t step off the trail.  Now, let’s go, O Mighty King of Phobias.

I don’t know, exactly, what scares him so.  There are no wild cats or bears in Switzerland.  One can almost always see a village of some sort in the distance, where there will no doubt be a café and a bus back to civilization.  I mean, it’s not like we are going to have to sleep out under a tree somewhere. 
And the instances of people literally falling off the side of the mountain are quite rare, so I just don’t
get it.  Yet, he still gets jittery after four years of hiking all over God and creation.

Anyway, I make him do it because it is good for his health and it is good sometimes for him to not always be so in control of everything.  Besides, the best stuff is always encountered when one goes off the beaten path.

Take this weekend for example.  We haven’t spent a lot of time up in the Suisse Allemande, or the German-speaking part of Switzerland, because, um, they speak Swiss German up there and they are
really, really strict with the rules, (like 10 times moreso than they are here in the French-speaking part, which is already bad enough).  There’s one corner of Switzerland where we have never been called Graubunden because it’s really hard to get there.  You will have heard of one ski village there called St. Moritz.  Anyone who lives in Switzerland knows to avoid St. Moritz like the plague because it is just chock full of Chinese tourists, it’s not at all authentic, it’s way overpriced and it’s full of poseurs.  (Sorry, St. Moritz, but you know it’s true).

There’s also Davos, but that’s another tourist trap which has only come into existence since the 1930’s and no actual Swiss people ever go there.  That left Klosters, which is more low key and
which, at least, has an actual village that existed long before the masses arrived to check off St. Moritz from their bucket list.

(Ok, for all of you ex-pats, forget Klosters, too.  It’s more of the same.  We stayed in Klosters because it was the lesser of three evils and the hotel was very nice and the restaurants are delicious in a very chef-y kind of way, but it’s really overpriced and, quite frankly, not that charming.  But, not to fear, I’m about to tell you where to go instead.)

I booked a room at the Hotel Alpina which is directly across from the train station in Klosters and just steps from the Gotschnabahn, the cable car which takes you up the mountain.  Because it is the
off-off-off season, the rooms were only 200 francs per night including breakfast which is a steal.  Dinner was another matter, entirely, but it was our 27th wedding anniversary, so what the hey.  Live a little, right?  (Just FYI, the same room goes for 479 francs during ski season).

Saturday morning, we took the train to Davos and then the mountain train up to the summit to begin our hike back to Klosters.  All of our preplanning had indicated that this was a five-hour hike and it did, indeed, take about five hours, plus a nice lunch on the mountain and stopping every five
minutes to take pictures.  Now, for those of you who have hiked around Zermatt and Mont Blanc like we have, you are going to be underwhelmed.  Davos is really rocky and brown.  There are no pastures filled with the sounds of cow bells.  The Klosters’ side of the hike was more picturesque but still not as breathtaking as the hiking trails in the Suisse Romande.

Being underwhelmed, I got out the maps that night after dinner in Klosters, (a shout out to the Hotel Rustica where we dined off of the Hunt Menu and conjured up visions of Thanksgiving with pumpkin
soup, braised red cabbage, roasted chestnut sauce and venison tenderloin), and started looking for REAL Swiss villages as opposed to tourist traps.

I knew that in this canton (county) of Graubunden lived the Romansch, a sector of Swiss people who speak another language entirely.  There are only about  5,000 people left who speak Romansch and they live a very
secluded life in a very secluded valley called Engadin.  I had heard that the town of Scuol in the Engadin valley was quite charming.  Looking at the map, it appeared that this valley was only one mountain away from Davos/Klosters but we would have to take a 20-minute train ride through said mountain to reach it.  Since this tunnel had only been completed in 2010, that explained why the Romansch were an isolated society, no?

Bright and early Sunday morning, I had Mr. Big up and out of bed dressed for hiking and exploring in the Engadin valley.  Destination:  Scuol-Tarasp.  End of the train line.  End of civilization.  From this
village you either retreat back into Switzerland or cross over the next Alp into Austria or Italy.  On foot.

Besides being the only place left on the planet where Romansch is spoken, the Engadin valley is known for “sgraffito”, which is ancient graffiti.  All of the old houses are decorated by etching patterns directly into the stucco.  Really, I couldn’t take enough pictures.  It was embarrassing, the amount of pictures that I took.  There was one poor woman on Sunday morning who was sitting outside of her house drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette and wearing a PINK
SNUGGIE, no lie, and I was just kind of hanging out in the street outside waiting for her to go in so I could take a picture of her house.  Her house was so cute but I didn’t want to be rude and take a picture of her in her snuggie, so I was just trying to dawdle nonchalantly around in front.  Alas, the woman never took the hint, never went back inside and, consequently, I never got a picture of her house, so I am bummed because it was the cutest house in the village.  Ah, me.

So, Scuol was precious.  But.  BUT.  Above Scuol, sits a castle.  And this castle is Cinderella’s castle,
except it is real and Cinderella’s is fake.

Me:  Mr. Big, I want to hike to that castle yonder and take some stellar pictures.

Big:  OMG, Trailing Spouse, that castle is about 10 kilometers straight up.  Is there a trail?  Is it marked?  Will we die?  Are there cliffs?   Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Me:  It’s my fairy tale and my anniversary and I want to go to the castle.  Wah, wah, wah, etc. etc. etc.

For those of you who want to do this excursion one weekend, here’s what we did:  from the church in Scuol, look to the left for the pedestrian bridge over the river Inn.  Walk through the village of Scuol, over the pedestrian bridge and stay on that side of the river, following the yellow hiking signs to Vulpera and Fontana Tarasp.  Leave the left river bank after about 3 kilometers, following the sign to Vulpera.  Follow the road through Vulpera to the base of the golf course and the Hotel Engadina where it starts climbing up to Fontana Tarasp.  (This is a climb.  Be prepared to sweat.)  Before you get to the village of Fontana Tarasp, you will come to the village of Sparsels and directly above that, the Schloss Tarasp.

Y’all.  The whole time I felt like I was Rapunzel or Gretel or one of those fairy tale damsels.  The hotels, the gardens, every little nook and cranny is just out of a children’s book.  The village of Vulpera was magical.  It takes a lot for a 51-year-old woman to gasp with delight but I was as enchanted as my granddaughter at a One Direction concert.

 Charming Daughter, if you don’t want to have your wedding at the hotel in Vulpera, I am never
speaking to you again.

As we were hiking by the golf course, Mr. Big says, “this is blog-worthy”.  High praise, indeed.   The little, nine hole course is perched on a mountainside and it only goes in one direction—down.  Even people who can’t play golf can play here.  You only need a putter.  Gravity does all the work.

The village of Sparsels is dominated by one family who own, and have owned, the only four-star
hotel/restaurant in the town, for the last 21 generations.  Yes.  You heard me.  21 generations.  We ate lunch there and I had filets de perche and it was delicious and I saw the world’s smallest hummingbird in the geraniums right next to my head.  Magical.

The tour of the castle was only in Swiss German, but I know enough High German that I was able to translate the relevant parts to Mr. Big.  The Schloss Tarasp is not owned, nor has it ever been owned,
by a Swiss person.  It was owned by Austrians and then by Germans, who still own it today and still occasionally stay in it.  The most famous person who owned it was an Austrian count who restored it from the late 1800’s to 1916.  He was famous because he owned a mouthwash empire.  Not kidding.  His mouthwash brand still exists today.  It is called Odol.  G’head.  Google it.  His name was Herr Linger.

We caught the bus back from Vulpera to Scuol to the main train station.  As we were walking from the schloss down to Vulpera, we stumbled upon the Hotel Maria, whose owner is a Swiss hoarder.  His hoard has outgrown the hotel
proper and he has expanded out onto the roadside where he has a junk shop.  Since the words “junk shop” are too downmarket for Switzerland, he, the owner, Erich, calls it Erich’s Brocki, which is Swiss German for Erich’s Junk Shop.  When Erich saw that I was enamored with his junk shop, he invited me inside the actual hotel to see his collection of angels.

Oh.  My.  Lord.  Erich, sir, you have a little problem.  Every room in the bar and the restaurant of the hotel was completely covered with angels made from plaster, plastic, wood, fiber, cloth or spit and Kleenex.   Because Erich spoke French, I was able to gather that he and his partner, also male, have found their little corner of paradise up in the Engadin valley, running the Hotel Maria and collecting a vast variety of angels in their spare time.  While waiting for the bus, I explored his hotel and shop and Mr. Big drank some wine and ate some pretzels and chips that Erich brought him to keep him entertained.  It was the best wait for a bus that I have ever had.

In sum, DO NOT STAY IN KLOSTERS OR DAVOS OR ST. MORITZ.  Hie thee directly to the Engadin valley and stay in Vulpera.  Go.  Now.  You will love it.