Thursday, August 16, 2012

the real Switzerland

Yesterday I came back from a quick trip to Switzerland. Each August, Italian friends of mine take possession of a converted farmhouse in the Simmental, an unfashionable valley near Bern, and have a good time, enjoying clean air, dairy products fresh from local cows, strenuous hikes, relaxing hours in the municipal swimming pool, and loads of good food cooked in large batches. They've been inviting me to join them with increasing insistence for at least five years. I've promised to come for at least three. This year, the seemingly impossible finally came to pass.

To make the journey exciting, I came up with my very own Top Gear challenge. Flucha and I would leave work at precisely the same time, she in a car from Marseille, me on various forms of public transport, rail- and airborne, from London. First on parking 2 outside the Geneva airport would win. It would have been a tight race, had everything gone according to plan, but Flucha did a wrong turn and found herself visiting Gap. Nice place, but not where you want to be when you want to get to Geneva double-quick. It was inevitable that I got there first, with a lead so comfortable that it almost invalidated the idea of the challenge. A bit more than two hours later, we hugged our friends in Lenk.

The best day was the third when Flucha and I undertook a hike that was just within our capabilities, a bit more than nine hours of walking with 5000 ft of climbing. It was warm, the wildflowers were out in blinding force, and every half hour, the scenery changed completely. We started in the lush green of a wide valley, advanced through receding vegetation past forbidding cliffs and up slopes of debris to the highest point of the hike. Up there, the trail flattened but variety remained. The colors changed repeatedly between grey, brown and green, each vista different from the one before. We passed by gushing rivers that could have been in northern Canada, glacial lakes and roaring waterfalls. We ran into cows and were briefly held up by a shepherd dog when we got too close to the flock he was guarding.

The presence of livestock so high up in the mountains is a general feature of the Alps. I learned today that the technical term is transhumance, which describes the seasonal migration of livestock between valley in winter and high pastures in summer. All high pastures are organized around a small self-contained dairy farm where the animals return at night after a day of grazing. The farms are remote; there is no way of getting the milk into the valley. Cheese production is the almost logical consequence.

After maturing for a year, the cheese is sold locally, either directly from the dairies or from fridges placed in front of many houses in the valley. The fridges are an odd sight and a fine example of what a perfect place Switzerland is. Most fridges have a locked honesty box nearby where you drop the money for the cheese you choose. Some have second box, open that one, with change in case you need it. The cracker was a fridge with the entire honesty box open inside the fridge, stuffed full of notes and coins, more than 50 franks.

My friends commented that this wouldn't work in Italy. People wouldn't just take the cheese without paying but also the money if they could get their hands on it. Flucha thought in Argentina, people wouldn't bother with the content. "They'd take the entire fridge", she said to general hilarity. In Switzerland, honesty sells cheese quite naturally.

But Switzerland is a strange place anyway. I've come up with the theory that there must have once been a country, let's call it Suisse, of outstanding natural beauty, with diligent inhabitants, correct procedures and trains running on time. When the inhabitants' strive for perfection in their existence and surroundings reached a limit, they created a perfected copy in its place. In analogy to Disneyland, they called it Switzerland.

Upon payment of an admission fee of 40 franks (disguised as annual motorway toll), visitors can explore the country as they please. In the mountains they can see accurately mown meadows covering inclines up to 50% steep. They can hike to waterfalls and way beyond the tree line. Wherever they go, it's like a walk in the park, because it is a walk in a (amusement) park.

Visitors will see park employees leaning out of the windows of the most picturesque houses that immediately recall Christmas in Hyde Park. To keep a wall of fabrication, the employees will communicate with each other in an invented language that's not entirely unlike German but completely incomprehensible. When the visitors get home they can tell their friends about a beautiful place that didn't feel quite right, a place that was too perfect to be real. This place is Switzerland.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

like a bird

Today, the Olympic triathlon came by work, or least very nearly so. The running and cycling took place between Hyde Park and Green Park and the swimming in the murky waters of the Serpentine. At 11:30 on the dot, as the starting gun fired, the local fauna suffered the shock of their lives. Frantic flocks of coots, mallards and the Queen's own swans launched a narrow escape from the threshing of the swimmers' arms, only to be sliced into waterfowl carpaccio by a TV helicopter's blades seconds later. It was pandemonium – a theme of the Olympics since Brunel started the industrial revolution during the opening ceremony – and only a short stroll away, past the Albert Hall and across a street.

A British pair of brothers came first and third, and while China and the US fight a proxy war for global supremacy, Great Britain is quietly adding to its own tally and leading the rest of the world in the medals table by a huge margin. They Games are far from over and they've already accumulated more gold medals than Michael Phelps earned over the course of his Olympic career. The glory!

But Britain is a good place to emotionally share in success. People are humble and self-deprecating. There's never gloating when things go well, no teasing or taunting. Spiteful patriotism is reserved for football (with no risk of ever winning). The British are genuinely happy and charmingly incredulous about their team's performance. Go Team GB!

There isn't much negative about the Olympics besides the cost (which I won't have to stand for). Prices haven't risen, traffic hasn't collapsed, everyone is cheerful. Many residents gave left town to take their summer vacations. The city feels quieter and calmer for their absence and, unless you run into an Olympic crowd, easier to navigate.

Besides the branding, London hasn't changed all that much. It is full of international visitors, much like always, except this time around they're wearing patriotism on their sleeves. Free arts and entertainment events are being staged all over town, much like always, except they're now Olympic-themed, at least in name.

Tongue in cheek I could say that the biggest problem is the number of volunteers, greeters and helpers. There's just too many of them and too little to do. You can hardly walk down a street without running into some dude in pink who engages you enthusiastically and tries to force a venues map into your reluctant hand. I've got four at home already.

On my way home from work, just past the volleyball venue, there are two side streets leading to official parking areas. Each night, on either intersection, a brave soul in yellow high-visibility jacket engages with me to ensure my safety, holding the rare car and waving me across, irritating self-importance mixing most bizarrely with a genuine sense of service. I feel like in kindergarten and want to punch him or least yell at him to get real. At the same time I want to hug him for his passion and thank him for doing his part to make the games fly. Who would have thought just three weeks ago?