Thursday, June 24, 2010

Multiple Personality Disorder

I’m going to take a much-deserved break and sit down and write in my blog.  Why did I think that by combining two dreadful chores into one it would make each slightly less horrible?  Didn’t work.  Listening to French language CD’s while ironing dress shirts just doubled the dreadfulness.  So, to the blog for a breather.

I’ve been writing a lot about my travels in the rest of Europe and not so much about my own backyard, so let’s fix that and take a quick look around Switzerland.  Switzerland is a funny place.  Not funny ha-ha, funny as in odd.  If Switzerland was a psych patient, it would be diagnosed with Multiple Personality Disorder.

We will call one of the personae who lives there inside the mind and body of Switzerland Jan.  Jan speaks Swiss German and drinks a lot of beer.  Jan always plays by the rules.  He lives in the Alps and minds his cows and sells his milk to the cheesemakers who turn it into stinky cheese.  Jan then melts this cheese in a big pot and eats it with bread and potatoes.  Jan owns and wears lederhosen.

Jan’s house is directly attached to his barn so that he can always be surrounded by the smell of his beloved cows, even while sleeping or brushing his teeth.  Jan does not care for foreigners, which would include all persons who were not born and raised in Jan’s village.  It is rumored that Jan does occasionally let his hair down and have fun and tell jokes, but no one from outside Jan’s village has ever witnessed this, so, at this point, Jan’s sense of humor is still just a rumor.  When Jan travels to the big city, he goes to Basel, Luzern or Zurich.  He and his wife, Anna, stay in a charming hotel or gasthof, and buy Anna a new dirndl or two from the shops.

Switzerland has another personality residing with Jan inside its’ body whom we will call Fabian.  Fabian lives in Geneva and works in a bank depositing money for rich Middle Eastern men wearing dishdashas.  Fabian speaks French and drinks a lot of wine.  Fabian and his girlfriend, Amie, are in their late 30’s and have just had their first baby.  They all live together in a modern apartment of 80 square meters which costs Fabian 4,000 Swiss Franc per month.

The apartment has a view of the Alps and Lac Leman.  Fabian also follows the rules but has been known to bend them on occasion.  Fabian and Amie sneak across the border every Sunday to buy meat and do the bulk of their shopping in France, where they also see all of their other Swiss friends doing the same thing.  Fabian and Amie pretend not to see these other friends buying clandestine non-Swiss food products.  On Le Weekend, Fabian and Amie like to ride their bikes around Lac Leman, towing the baby behind in a snazzy little cart.  This activity keeps Fabian and Amie incredibly skinny, fit and looking good in their all-black wardrobes.

Jan and Fabian also share the body of Switzerland with Mario.  Mario is not allowed to have much room inside the body, just 10 percent, but it is the warmest part of the body, so Mario doesn’t care.  Mario speaks Italian and eats a lot of pizza and risotto.  Jan and Fabian like to vacation down in Mario’s sector on Lago Maggiore or Lago di Lugano. 

Mario drives a Formula One race car for a living and lives in a villa in Ascona.  Mario pays even less attention to the rules than Fabian.  Fabian and Jan think Mario is enjoying life just a little bit too much and, most of the time, completely forget that Mario even exists.

Jan has a shadowy second cousin, once removed, living there inside the body of Switzerland, named Benno.  The only confirmed sighting of Benno was back when all four men were boys and had to get together for their mandatory Swiss Army conscription.  Jan, Fabian and Mario have never seen Benno since.  Benno, along with approximately 31 other people, speaks Romansch.  He is only allotted the pinkie finger of Switzerland and never leaves his Graubunden stronghold. 

Jan, Fabian and Mario are a little spooked by Benno and don’t care to know what kind of relationship he has up there on his mountain with his sheep.

Now, if a Swiss person ever tries to tell you that Jan, Fabian, Mario and Benno are all one big happy family and play nicely together in the sandbox, that is a load of crap.  The only time these four feel like they live in the same country is every four years at World Cup time.  For four weeks every fourth summer the whole body goes into a nationalistic soccer-driven fervor.  All four personalities get out their red flag with the big white cross and hang it from their balconies or window sills.  After those four weeks have passed, the flags get packed up again and the body of Switzerland divides itself once again into its’ four identities.

Imagine for a moment, if you will,  if California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado all spoke one language, Florida and Georgia spoke another one entirely, Connecticut another and everybody else spoke English.  Now imagine if those people who spoke English all spoke a different version of English, according to which state they lived in.  Like, the folks in New Jersey spoke a slightly different English than New Yorkers.  Different enough that it was difficult for a New Jersey person to understand a New York person.  THEN, squish all of that entire land mass into an area the size of South Carolina, so they are all bumping into one another all of the time, (well, except for the people in Connecticut who never leave their state and are kind of spooky).  What to do?  How do they communicate with one another?

Answer:  teach them a FIFTH language in school when they are just children that then becomes the default language when they try to talk to one another.  Hence, in the body that is Switzerland that suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder, Jan, Mario, Benno and Fabian communicate with each other in English, the default language.  Fabian and Mario even went so far as to learn each other’s languages in school, but neither one of them was willing to tackle Swiss German, so Jan is out of luck.  Benno and Jan both had to learn to write in High German, because neither one of their spoken languages translates well into a written language, so those two can communicate if they pass notes.

And that, my friends, is a tongue-in-cheek look at life in Switzerland.  Who benefits from this Multiple Personality Disorder?  Travelers!  You get the feel of three different countries/cultures, (four if you are brave enough to go to Graubunden) all within a few hours of each other.  Why go to Germany, France or Italy when you can just tool around little Switzerland and get the same flavor?  Fabulous, I tell you.

Allright, enough playtime.  Back to ironing and French tapes.  Wonder if the Rosetta Stone does a version in Romansch?

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Small Rant About Queuing/Queueing, or However the Hell You Spell It

The Swiss are genetically incapable of forming a queue, or line, as we call it in the US.  And I hate a line-butter.  (Or line-cutter, some people call them line-cutters).  Don’t you?

I saw it again, just this morning, in the Porto, Portugal airport trying to get on our flight to Geneva.  The very new, very nice little airport there in Porto has one serious design flaw.  There is only ONE entrance into EIGHT security lines.  It’s like 8 lanes of Los Angeles traffic merging down into one, except in reverse.  I mean, people had time to do their makeup, write a report and practice the Kama Sutra while waiting in this line.   Being from one of the two countries that understands proper queuing etiquette, i.e. the US and the UK, (and, I must admit, the UK folks are the crowned champion queuers—they can form a line out of spit, Kleenex and Popsicle sticks), Mr. Big and I took our place at the end of the line which was outside the terminal at the edge of  the parking lot.

When we finally made it about 90% up the line and caught our first glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel, I saw them.  The f***ing Swiss.  Butting.  COMPLETELY OBLIVIOUS, as always, that there was, indeed, a line of people snaking for about 4 kilometers back into the hinterlands.  I saw not one, but two, separate groups of travelers, who came directly out of the ticketing line where they had just handed off their Longchamps luggage and walk directly into the head of the queue!  I’m poking Mr. Big in the arm, “Look, look for it.  The red passport with the white cross.  Look for it, Mr. Big.”

Sure enough, Swiss passports to the man, but, more importantly, no guilt!  They don’t even know that they have butted into the head of a line that stretched back to Guam!!  And, even though I don’t understand a word of Portuguese, the natives in the line were pissed, too.  I could tell by undertone, the vibe, the body language.  Even little old ladies were pissed!  “Bah, F***ing Swiss!” is pretty much universal in any language.

Why do they think they are entitled to do this?  They are from a highly regulated country that manages to teach their infants not to cry on Sundays, (which, I suspect, involves the employment of duct tape from an alarmingly early age, but I cannot prove this).  Why can they not understand the concept of a line?  Here are a few more examples that make my teeth hurt:

On The Metro or Train.  When the doors open, it is polite and UNIVERSALLY UNDERSTOOD that one stands to the side and lets the disembarking passengers off first.  Simple concept, right?  Non, non, non.  They stand DIRECTLY at the opening of the doors and try to barge their way through the oncoming traffic and then have the gall to look MIFFED and, quite possibly, might let out with a disgruntled “Ssschuut!” if they are not let onto the Metro car immediately.

Getting on an Elevator:  If you have ever seen anyone get on an elevator first, immediately turn around and plant their body right in front, right in the middle, and, subsequently, force all of the other passengers to make their way around them like water going around a boulder in a stream, then that person was Swiss, guaranteed.    I ride the Metro every day.  At my Metro stop, I have to get on an elevator to get up to street level, so I have to experience this phenomenon at least once, if not two or three times per day.  And I have been studying them.  In depth.  Because this is soooooo annoying to me.

At first, I thought it was just little, old ladies who felt somehow entitled to interrupt proper elevator behavior.  Little, old ladies can be annoying in any country.  Let’s face it, they are kinda mean and scary, as a general rule.  But, sadly, no.  It is all age groups, both sexes, all socio-economic strati.  With one exception.  The moms who are pushing strollers always go to the back of the elevator and try to get to get out of everybody’s way.  So, here is a small cheer for the Swiss moms with little tykes.  Good for you.

Me, being the smart-ass that I am, I try to set an example.  I think to myself, “Self, we are going to teach these Swiss folks BY EXAMPLE how to properly queue.”  So, using PRONOUNCED body language, I make a big, exaggerated, sweeping move to the side when the Metro stops and show the natives how rewarding it is to let other people off the train before embarking.  I SKIP to the backs of elevators when I am lucky enough to get on first with a giant smile on my face.  “Look, Swiss people!!  This is how you do it!  You go to the BACK and you plant your ASS against the SIDE!”.

It is not working.  They don’t even look at me.  Perhaps if I start carrying Longchamps luggage, they will take me more seriously.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Haute Fondue

Summertime is about to roll around again here in La Suisse, and that means two things:  all planned construction projects of any sort get underway, and, your friends and family will start calling you with their anticipated travel dates.

I heard a pithy saying on one of the expat forums in answer to a poster who was complaining about the lack of a decent springtime.  A witty long-timer explained that, in Switzerland, there are only two seasons.  Winter and Construction Season.  I think the Swiss have decided that the day that the ferries on all the lakes swing into “summer season”, (this year it was April 17th), marks the official day that the cranes, scaffolding and road paving equipment gets dusted off and brought out of winter hibernation.  When I woke up on April 17th, five giant cranes had sprung up like crocuses off the view from my patio.  I’m like, hey!  Construction people!  You need to get those cranes out of here because I have guests coming this summer and you are spoiling my view, not to mention the pictures that they will inevitably take and later put on Facebook!  Because they are Swiss, however, and I was screaming in English, they did not listen and the cranes are all still there.  What to do?

Go up higher.  You think those gimungous mountains are there just to sit around and look pretty?  Hell, no!  We are Swiss and we are meant to go out and interact with them at every given opportunity.  We, (and I am including myself in this “we” only in the very loosest of definitions), hike up and down them, bike up and down them, ski down them, jump off them with parachutes, eat on top of them, paint them and swing between them on gondolas.  If you are feeling depressed by the cold, gray, drizzly weather, go up, young man!  Go up!  The mountains are so high that there are always a couple of them that poke up out of the clouds, (like where AIRPLANES go!), and, VOILA!, you will be in sunshine.  It will still be freezing, but it will be sunny.

So, right after the crane incident, I convinced Mr. Big that we needed to find somewhere to take our anticipated summer guests up above the clouds for some spectacular views and a little Haute Fondue.  (This is my new term, I’m copywriting it right now, this very second.  Haute Fondue.  Definition, consuming typical Swiss cuisine whilst perched on top of an Alp.)  Now, we already know of one place, Rochers-de-Naye, which is the peak up above the city of Montreaux.  We took the kids there last year and it was spectacular.  We spent the night in a yurt, ate Haute Fondue and hiked down the mountain back into Montreaux.  Fun stuff.  BUT, we had already taken two sets of guests there last year and if those same guests come back this year, we needed some new tricks up our sleeve, if you will.

Hence, Leysin.  Leysin is a mountain village up above Aigle.  (Lay-zah/Aay-gluh).  Up above Leysin lies a medium-sized mountain terminating at a peak called Berneuse.   You can drive or take the train as far as Leysin, but that, sistuh, is the end of the road, literally.  From Leysin, you must either a) hike up, b) bike up, c) take the telecabine up or d) just park your ass in one of the cafes and stay right where you are.  Well, it was a toss up, of course, between option c and option d for Mr. Big and I, but since we were on a fact-finding mission, we chose the telecabine and continued on our journey.

Sixteen franc each later, we arrived at the top.  We enjoyed the 360 degree views of at least 3 countries.  Now, mind you, in the winter, that telecabine takes you to the top of the ski slope where you will find, in winter, the prerequisite BAR, right?  Somewhere to consume your vin chaud between runs, right?  Like many other ski resorts, the bar is made of hollowed-out ice and snow.  It is, for all practical purposes, an igloo.  An igloo bar.  Get it?  Well, have you ever seen the remains of an igloo bar in the spring?  I have.  They just let it melt.  WHO KNEW?!!!  A half-melted igloo bar.  Sooooo weird.

While I was snapping photos of the Dali-esque melting igloo bar, Mr. Big is tugging on my sleeve.  “Look, Trailing Spouse, there are people jumping off this mountain.”  And, by Christ, they were.  We had stumbled upon one of the jumping-off points for the parapenters.  This is a crazy sport where completely insane people take a running start off of the side of a perfectly good 6,000 to 12.000 foot mountain with nothing but a parachute and a spare bottle of water. 

They float down and all around and land in like, Austria, or something.  We watched one girl, who was a beginner, who had to go with a guide, in a quasi-sexual tandem arrangement sort of like two spoons in a drawer, if you know what I mean.  Anyway, the girl and the trainer practiced their take-off, trying to get their steps in sync, until it was time for the actual jump. 

Will she do it?  Will she chicken out?  How will she actually make herself take that last and final step into thin air?  She did it.  I was like, you go girl, you crazy thing.  I will be in the restaurant if you need me.

Ahh, the restaurant.  It SPINS!  How fabulous.  Rotating Haute Fondue!  If you want to Google it, the name of the restaurant is Kuklos.  Just type in Kuklos Berneuse and you can see pictures of it.  Alas, our meal was too soon over and it was time to hike down the mountain back to the car.  What!  You thought I was such a wimp that I would take the telecabine back down?  Puhleez!  I am semi-Swiss.  I can hike DOWN mountains.  I bike DOWN mountains.  Only complete dweebs/really old/really drunk people take the telecabine back DOWN the mountain.  It’s the Swiss Walk of Shame, riding back down.  (It’s also the Swiss Walk of Shame taking the telecabine UP the mountain, but I prefer not to think about that.  As I said, only SEMI-Swiss.)

Because it was only May, ahem, the first leg of our journey back down was in snow.  The little lake up at the top had, apparently, only thawed out the weekend before, because the frogs were highly confused.  Ha!  There’s a sentence you don’t see very often.  Yes, we had to watch our step in the snow because the frogs were EVERYWHERE.  Mr. Big and I could not figure out if they had just come out of the recently frozen lake and were trying to make their way to higher ground or if they had been in hibernation somewhere and were trying to make their way to their now unfrozen lake.  Regardless, frogs hopping across vast snowfields was quite a sight to behold.

After a refreshing two hour hike, we arrived back in Leysin.  My friends who are reading this back in the States are laughing their heads off right now.  Trailing Spouse and a Two Hour Hike are two phrases that would never have gone together in a million years in my old life.  Trailing Spouse and a Chocolate Martini, yes.  Trailing Spouse and a Nice Long Sunday Nap, yes.  Trailing Spouse and a Two Hour Shopping Spree at the Mall, of course.  Oh, how times have changed.

BTW, tomorrow is the 1st of June.  Last night, it snowed at 1,500 meters and yesterday I had to wear a winter coat, scarf and boots to walk down to the lake to have Sunday brunch and read my (London) Times.  I’m thinking my summer guests will not have to pack a bathing suit this year to come and visit me.  A parka, yes.  Bikini, umm, not lookin’ so good.  But the Haute Fondue will be excellent!