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 cafĂ© 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.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Chalet Shenanigans - Chapter 28

The Season of the Visitors

Auntie has done her European vacation and here are the things she learned:

1.        Business class is not all it is cracked up to be.  Yes, Auntie might possibly be the first person
 in the world who disliked Lufthansa lay-flat beds (these things are NOT comfortable, Trailing   Spouse!), or four-course dinners (speck?  What is speck?), or all the alcohol one can drink.  C’est la vie.  Uncle Wade, rest easy, I did not spoil her for your future travels.  Girl prefers coach.

2.        It is possible to do all 5 Big Landmarks in Paris in one day using the metro and simply running your visitor up the metro steps, snapping the photo and running back down the metro steps to the next

3.        The Paris metro has a certain aroma and a certain ambience which can be alarming to an older, very white, very sheltered American who lives out in the countryside.  ‘Nuff said.

4.        Even Baptists can get carried away upon seeing the Pope.  Okay.  This was hilarious.  The morning that we visited Vatican City coincided with a Papal mass wherein the newly inaugurated Pope, Francis by name, was actually conducting the outdoor mass himself and making/crowning/inducting a bunch of new saints.  (I don’t know the right verb for turning somebody into a saint).  Anyway, there were more than 100,000 people out in the square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica and I was appalled.  I have been to the Vatican before and it has been very calm and you can go inside and get some great pictures of the Swiss guards, etc.  Not on this day.  On this particular day there were soldiers everywhere with guns and helicopters hovering overhead and metal stanchions all over the place strictly dividing where one could and could not venture.

Suddenly, for the first time in four days, Auntie comes alive and decides that she wants to take the lead of our little threesome, as opposed to following Mr. Big and I everywhere and occasionally
clutching the back of my shirt when she thought she was going to lose me.    So, out she pops, all 4 feet 10 inches of her, and starts tunneling through this HUGE crowd because she wants to be IN FRONT and get some up close photos of these various High Holy Figures.

ME:  Mr. Big, where in the hell is she going?

BIG:  I have no idea.  She’s YOUR aunt.

ME:  Go get her ass and get her back here before she gets trampled.

By this time, we had already lost sight of her tiny self and so Mr. Big had to elbow his way through all of these devout worshippers who were not too happy to have their feet stepped on but Mr. Big didn’t care.  He finds Auntie after only about two minutes (I swear, Uncle Wade, it was only two minutes!!) and he tells her, quite forcefully, that SHE CANNOT JUST GO MEANDERING OFF on her own in a crowd of 100,000 penitent Italians.  Well, Auntie was upset that us nasty young people spoiled all of her fun.  To make up for it, we showed her the Vatican City Post Office, (really just a single-wide mobile home that they set up in the middle of the square), where one can send a post card anywhere in the world, adorned with Pope Frank’s face, and postmarked from Vatican City.

After she mailed her post card to poor, unsuspecting Uncle Wade, (Huh?  Why am I getting a post card from the Pope?  Aren’t we Baptists?), we then had to fight our way back into Rome proper through a ginormous anti-abortion parade.  Really?  Can we have any more fun today?  Have YOU
ever tried to keep track of a very short lady in a foreign city going against the flow of 10,000 pro-life protesters?  I have.  I, myself, am going to be sainted on the Pope’s next go-round.  It’s true.  I got a letter.

5.        The Alps are indeed, high, and Switzerland is indeed, cold.  Nevermind that the calendar says June.  Even on sunny days, to an American, it is cold here.  It’s a fact of life.  I try to explain to people that we are on a latitude exactly equal to Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Would you go to Canada and not even bring a sweater?  Exactly.  Auntie was a shivering mass of flesh the entire time.

As for the altitude?  The first time we went over the Alps we went over the Grand St. Bernard pass.  She passed out in the back seat at about 2,500 meters and didn’t really revive until the next day around lunch time when we left the Val d’Aoste.  It’s a good thing I took pictures of our first night in Saint Vincent at the Hotel Alla Posta, because she, to this day, has absolutely no recollection.

Lest you think I am picking on Auntie, rest assured, I think she had a good time overall.  Once she got over the shock that there’s no such thing as bacon and eggs for breakfast and people here start drinking wine at lunchtime, she was okay.  Immediately after Auntie left, we welcomed Mr. Big’s dad, his wife and two of their friends.  Luckily, I had warned them ahead of time that, according to Auntie, it was freezing here, so they came fully equipped for fall-like weather.

We had a lovely stay with them, although, again, I think they were appalled by the fact that we eat approximately 10% of the amount of food on a daily basis that Americans routinely eat.  Also, hard
liquor is a rarity because everyone drinks only wine or beer.  And, if the hard liquor drink that one prefers is kind of off-the-beaten-path, that drink will not be duplicated with any success for the entire length of your stay.

Let me explain.  If you have guests coming who drink things involving more than two ice cubes, a
blender, strawberries, a TWIST of lemon, the verb “to muddle”, anything involving a dairy product, a “sprig” of anything, etc., their drink wishes are not going to be fulfilled.  These things just do not translate well.  I cannot stress this enough.  We do not even have CLUB SODA or TONIC WATER here.  

There are some close facsimiles, but they are not right.  I could go on and on about this for days, but,
be forewarned, if you want a hard liquor drink in Europe, you had better trim that sucker down to its’ bare essence.  In other words, to a simple shot of whatever is your pleasure.  A shot of vodka.  A shot of single malt scotch.  A shot of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey.  You see?  Don’t be trying to order a Sex on the Beach or a Long Island Iced Tea or a Mojito or anything involving cranberry.  Not gonna happen.

Enough about the drinks.  Let’s talk about the amazing things.  The day that we went to Yvoire on the Nyon-Yvoire ferry was fantastic.  The flowers in Yvoire were out of this world.  The day we took our visitors up from Chamonix to the Aiguille du Midi to see Mont Blanc was crystal clear.  (Freezing, but clear).  

Gruyere, as usual, was quirky but quintessentially Swiss.   Mr. Big’s crowning achievement was finding an English-speaking Catholic mass here in Lausanne for some visitors who wanted to go to
church.  They went twice!  (Thank you, Father-from-Ireland-in-Chailly who made them feel welcome!)

And, if you think MY visitors were challenging, let me tell you about my friend who lives in La Croix sur Lutry.  She had a niece from America come to visit this summer who went walk-about.  While in Greece, this niece GOT HIT BY A BUS and wound up in a Greek hospital.  The niece’s mother had to fly here to rescue her.  The whole visit included hospital visits in Greece and Switzerland, extra plane tickets, much angst, three-way translated phone calls in Greek-French-English, etc.  A nightmare.  All is well, though.  Niece is fine and back in Missouri or Ohio or wherever. 

Me?  I consider myself lucky that none of my guests wound up needing health care!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Chalet Shenanigans - Chapter 27

So I have this Aunt

. . . who is coming to visit and whom I love dearly and who reads this blog religiously and who is hysterical enough to merit her own blog post.

If you are an ex-pat long enough, you will see your fair share of visitors who come in all possible combinations of age, sex, health and family configurations.  In order to be a good host, you, dear ex-pat, should keep a ready list of things to do and see that account for every type of houseguest.

I have my list of things for twentysomethings which includes skiing, giving directions to the Flon which is the club spot in Lausanne and a plan for spending  a night in a yurt.  I have my list of things for couples our age which includes skiing, hiking from Wengen to Klein Scheidegg and walking to Lutry on Sunday morning for brunch.

We haven’t had any visitors yet with small children, but when we do, I have a list ready for them as well which includes skiing, getting lost in the Labyrinth Park near Monthey and eating our way through the  chocolate factory tour in Broc.

I also have a very short list for sixtysomethings from two years ago when my dad and his wife came to visit and I am going to steal liberally from this agenda when my aunt comes in May.  Unfortunately, my dad was only here with me in Switzerland for three days so the list only includes Gruyere and a boat trip to Evian and Yvoire.

My aunt, bless her heart, is in her seventies but she acts like she is in her forties so I am cautiously optimistic about the success of this extended visit.  The best part about Auntie is that she comes as a matching set with Uncle Wade*, (*names have been changed to protect the innocent, although Uncle “Wade” is far from innocent, so I don’t really know why I have bothered to change his name.)   Uncle Wade is, quite possibly, the funniest person on this planet or any other.  His sense of humor is so dry he makes James Bond’s martini envious.  (I hope he steals that line and has it engraved on his headstone.)

I am sure when Uncle Wade was courting Auntie he saw a cute, petite, vivacious and funny little thing that he thought would make the latter half of his life fun, lively and adventurous.  Yeah, he got all that.  And a cup of coffee.  Auntie is like Tinkerbell, wrapped inside a Brillo pad, tucked inside Napoleon’s vest.  Imagine if General Patton and Hello Kitty had a baby.  That’s Auntie.  And, honey, if Auntie were running the world, well, the world would run.  Period.

Unfortunately, Uncle Wade is not coming to Europe.  Not now, not ever.  Which is a shame because he and I have shared many a bonding moment complete with eyerolls when we looked across the room at all of our relatives and sent a mental message to each other that said “We are the only two sane people in the joint.  Let’s just sit back and enjoy the show, shall we?” 

Ain’t no way Uncle Wade was gonna go traipsin’ off to a furrin’ country and hang out with no namby pamby poncey Eurotrash and possibly miss the salmon run in Alaska.  No way in hell, missy.  Jus’ send me a postcard and let’s call it a day.

So, I’m a little nervous.  Auntie is a Planner.  I am not a Planner.  I am a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of person.  Here’s a little hint of why I am nervous:

Fairly Close Reconstruction of our conversation in November, 2012:

Auntie:  I want to come see you.  I’ve never been to Europe and it is a lifelong dream.

Me:  Great!  Is Uncle Wade coming with you?

Auntie:  Oh, for Heaven’s sake, no, of course not.  Have you lost your mind?  He might miss moose season or the premier of Duck Dynasty or something.

Me:  Okay.  When are you thinking of coming?

Auntie:  That’s a good question.  When is the next time you are coming to America?  Because, you see, the thing is, I am, actually, uh, a bit nervous to fly all that way by myself.

Me:  Um, okay.  Well, we are coming to America in December, February and then, I think, May of 2013.

Auntie:  Isn’t it cold there in December and February?

Me (laughing):  Yes, you could say that!  So, you want to fly with us in May when we come back to Switzerland from South Carolina?

Auntie:  Yes!  When do you think you will know the flight number?

Me:  The flight number of what?

Auntie:  The flight number of the plane we will be taking, silly!

Wowza, lady, I don’t even know what continent I’m going to be living on next May and you want to book a flight?  Of course, I didn’t say that because she is my elder, plus I didn’t want her to think that I was a flibberty-gibbet which is a word that I imagine people of her generation call people like me.  Plus I didn’t want to get smacked upside the head with a small handbag.

I held her off until February and then she started to go into Planner Panic.  Planner Panic occurs when a person who is, by nature, a Planner, encounters people like me who are utter bohemians and they start having anxiety attacks.  Three months ahead of time.  Here are the differences in the thought processes:

Bohemian:  Chill, mama.  You will be on a plane.  You will fly to Europe.  I will be with you the entire time.  Well, except for the time when you are in coach and I am in business.  During that time, I will come back and visit you and laugh at your food.  JUST KIDDING, AUNTIE!!!  LOVE YOU!!!  Where was I?  Okay, we will hang out in Switzerland, France and Italy.  It will be awesome and we will drink a lot of wine.  I will send you home, by yourself, and you will have many good memories and many Facebook-worthy pictures of us eating and meandering our way through Europe.

Planner:  I will leave the house at 9:34 Pacific Standard Time.   Uncle Wade will drive me to Sea-Tac and put me on the 12:45 plane to Columbia, South Carolina via Atlanta.  I will choose the pasta option in the air.  Upon landing, I will be met by Trailing Spouse and Mr. Big and we will proceed to their home where we will spend approximately 56 hours.  We will leave for the Charlotte airport at . . .
Well, you get the picture.  It’s not like I don’t have vast experience dealing with a Planner.  I am married to one.  However, over the decades, I have trained his inner Planner self to just go into hiding and go with the flow and it has always come out splendidly.  Well, almost always.  Auntie, on the other hand, is not used to my Bohemian ways and I fear that I will spoil her one and only trip to Europe in her entire life.  This terrifies me.  Too much pressure.  Gah!

In order to circumvent future May pitfalls, I sent Auntie a questionnaire.  Really.  Ask her.  I did.  It was a legit questionnaire with queries like “how many miles can you walk on uneven cobblestones?” and “approximately how many churches/cathedrals would you like to see in a 2 week period?  Ten?  Twenty?  Or some embarrassing number like fifty?” and “if we have to share a hotel room, do you prefer the right or left side?” and “what temperature in said hotel room would you say is ideal?  Warm?  Hot?  Or so hot we could steam dim sum on the radiator?”  Hey, you never know, right?  I was just trying to cover all my bases.

She was a really good sport and she answered my questions truthfully so I now have a much better grasp of what she wants to see and do.  Here is an example of her Definite Must Sees and her Possibly, If There Is Time Can We Please Sees:  (keep in mind she will be here for fourteen days):

Rome, Venice, Barcelona, Paris, Every City in Switzerland, St. Petersburg, Prague, Copenhagen, Tuscany, Provence, both the Italian and French Rivieras and every small, charming village in Europe while not ruling out a side trip to the UK.  And Ireland.

Auntie has the same problem many, many Americans have when coming to Europe.  They look at a world map and they compare the size of Europe to the size of America and they think, “jeez, that whole continent fits inside Ohio.  We can see the whole thing in like, a week.  Maybe even 5 days if we drive fast enough and don’t dawdle.”  What they don’t understand is that there is a little thing called the Alps that runs smack dab through the middle of the continent which inhibits travel.  A voyager must take into account all of the VERTICAL miles as well as horizontal miles.  That’s why it takes 5 hours to drive to Milan and Milan is only like twelve miles away.

Americans also don’t understand the difficulties of a highway system where the biggest road in an entire country has only two or three lanes going in each direction.  Usually only two.  Lastly, Auntie, I am sure, does not have a good grip on the limitations of my vehicle.

I have a Land Rover Defender which I use strictly to get around in the snow.  It’s not really a highway vehicle.  It’s certainly not a city vehicle.  It doesn’t go very fast and it is neither pretty nor comfortable but it will plow through two feet of snow like nobody’s business.  It is sort of like a Sherman tank but without as many cupholders.  Therefore, Auntie and I will probably be training to the majority of the spots on her Wish List and then taking various metro systems and bus routes.  I am nervous about this because I am trying to picture my aunt, the Planner, in the bowels of the Paris metro system where the only thing one can plan on is mayhem.

I am seriously thinking of getting her one of those harness/leash things so I don’t lose her.  I’m pretty sure Uncle Wade would never forgive me if I lost his wife.

Me:  Uncle Wade, I lost your wife.  One minute we were boarding the water taxi in Venice and when I turned around, she’d gone missing.

Wade:  Does she have her Venice guide book with her?

Me:  I’m quite certain that she has 7 or 8 guide books on her person as we speak.  She left a few in the hotel room that I told her she wouldn’t need today, like the Istanbul one, for example.

Wade:  Go online and see what the Venice guide book says about “What to do if you get lost or if you lose another person” and then just do whatever the book says because you can be durned sure that that is what she is going to do.

Me:  So you think she will just be hanging out at the American Consulate then, huh?

Wade:  Bet on it, missy.  She’s probably reorganized their filing system by now and made them all place Mary Kay cosmetic orders.  There’s potential here for an international incident so you best hurry.

Me:  I’m on it.

Well, I was going to continue this blog post because there’s much more to cover but I’ve just received an email from Auntie telling me that she hopes that all of the seats that I booked for her on her various flights are aisle seats.  Apparently, this is a crucial question that I left off of my informal questionnaire and I had Mr. Big book all window seats.  DON’T TELL HER!!  I will have this little issue fixed before she ever even knows about it!  Gah!  Gotta go!