Thursday, April 19, 2007

Beauty and the Underbelly

Because the Swiss get Good Friday and Easter Monday off from work, Easter is a glorious four day weekend whether you celebrate the resurrection of Christ or a visit from the Easter Bunny. Mickey and I celebrated in our own way by devouring a two foot tall chocolate bunny and taking a road trip around Switzerland. None of this (neither the trip nor the consumption of the bunny) would have been possible without the patience and generosity of our friends Daniel and Sirpa. After four days, three nights, ten stops and 1,000 kilometers on Sirpa’s electric blue Puegot, we have seen Switzerland but are still hungry for more. To learn more about our travel route, click here.

When Daniel remarked at one point that we should take a ‘scenic route’ to our next destination, I had to laugh because the term doesn’t seem to apply to Switzerland. The whole country is so magnificent, I challenge someone to find a route that isn’t scenic here. While riding along the Thuner See, I glanced at the other drivers and wondered if the majestic alps and shimmering lake ever failed to inspire them. Do they think, ‘wow, I am lucky to live here’ on their commutes to and from work or does the scenery become commonplace? I imagine that these drivers re-appreciate the beauty of their homeland when they return from long trips abroad. Perhaps I too will gaze on the Pacific coast and the Golden Gate Bridge with a fresh eye when I eventually return to California, the land I love.

We enjoyed spectacular weather the whole weekend and the warm, clear days only added to the splendor. I thought often of Joanna Spyri’s famous story and my favorite film adaptation with Shirley Temple because we were indeed in Heidi land. Any one of the abandoned winter cow sheds could have passed for Grandfather’s hermitage and all the fields resembled those where Heidi and Peter led the goats to graze. Yes, this is the sort of place where sickly girls like Clara can fill up on fresh dairy products and learn how to walk. Perhaps a little Alpine air can cure almost any ill. And I think this is what the Swiss Tourism Bureau wants us to believe.

The Swiss authorities are pleased when we order fondue and bring home cuckoo clocks as souvenirs, but I get the impression that they don’t want to share their Heidi land with permanent visitors. While on this perfect adventure through this outwardly gorgeous country, Switzerland’s less pretty side emerged. It became glaringly apparent just how much the Swiss dislike foreigners and particularly immigrants from what was once Yugoslavia. I must admit that the Swiss have been nothing but friendly and helpful to me, but I have heard racist stereotypes about ex-Yugoslavians on several occasions. People accuse them of not trying to integrate themselves with Swiss society, driving loud cars, wearing flashy clothes and committing a disproportionate amount of crime. I heard of someone who wanted satellite TV, but did not install a dish on her balcony because it would make her look like an ex-Yugoslavian.

The manager of a hotel in Interlakken recommended a particular cafe with the following anecdote: ‘Go to _______ for a coffee. They charge five Francs for one coffee, but they have to. They used to charge three, but then the ex-Yugoslavians came and put their feet up on the tables, so they had to raise the price to five.’ To say that Americans don’t make similar disparaging remarks about immigrant populations would be a lie, but I had never heard such politically incorrect ideas from otherwise quite lovely individuals.* However, I guess therein lies one of the differences between prejudice here in Switzerland and at home in the States. Whereas at home showing racial bias is an absolute taboo, here in Switzerland making fun of foreigners is an acceptable national pastime. Whether it is done publicly or behind closed doors, it is unfortunate that immigrants are disrespected. My country was created and is maintained by the hands and hearts of hard working immigrants and I know that Switzerland couldn’t survive without them either.

Still, we enjoyed a fantastic romp about Switzerland. When I first got home, though, I felt a little disappointed that I couldn’t cross any major destinations off my mental list of sites to see. We stayed in Interlakken, but decided not to ascend its greatest tourist attraction, the Jungfraujoch – Top of Europe. Likewise, we spent one night in Lausanne but did not visit the Olympic Museum at the IOC headquarters. We did see the Matterhorn, a peak in southwestern Switzerland made famous by Toblerone wrappers and a ride by the same name at Disneyland, but were not allowed to get up close because it was too crowded and late in the day. Even from far away it was breathtaking. I learned once that Disney’s Matterhorn is a scale replica of the real one, but maybe that’s just one of those factoids that Orange County kids dream up when they get season passes to the happiest place on earth. Anyway, Switzerland’s superior public transportation system makes it easy for me to return to these places another time. Besides, isn’t it better to be left wanting more as opposed to crossing something off your list and never caring to return?
Again, I didn’t make it to Switzerland’s most famous Alps, but my travel checklist looks something like this:

Double Cream in Grueyere – Check

Are you familiar with a subtle yellow cheese by the same name? Yeah, it comes from this charming, pedestrian only town where the locals try to outdo each other with colorful window boxes. Besides its famous cheese served in fondue form, Grueyere’s other famous dish is double cream poured atop fresh raspberries. Did they double the time it takes to whip this cream or did they double the calories? I don’t care if they tripled the calories, it was that good.

Beautiful Old Churches Everywhere – Check

We have already chosen a wedding venue, but some of these cathedrals would have made picture perfect wedding sites. Even the catholic churches here in Switzerland are a lot less ornate than those in Italy and Spain, but I think the Swiss prefer it that way.

Decent Mexican Food in Lausanne – Incredibly... Check

Okay, so the salsa was more like marinara and the margarita glasses were rimmed with sugar and not salt, but this was the most authentic taste of Mexico we’ve had in months! The fajitas included grilled bell peppers and were actually served on a skillet. Sirpa said that Zurich also used to have a Poco Loco, but it went out of business. Maybe their menus that are so large you need eye holes to see your date just didn’t appeal to Zurichers.

Castle Ruins in Sion – Check

The gentle fluttering of hundreds of butterflies added to the enchantment of this hilltop fortress. I could easily imagine myself in a historical romance novel. I would eavesdrop on gossip about the chambermaid and the knight while taking my lunch on the esplanade.

One of the best parts of this trip was just dining alfresco with good friends. I imagine that if someone followed the same route that we did on a different weekend in different weather conditions, it would still be scenic, but they would experience a different Switzerland. Maybe they would never notice how xenophobic the Swiss can be. I suppose that every rose, even one as radiant as Switzerland, has its thorn.

* Note: My employers are an important exception to this trend. I have never heard them say anything disrespectful about foreigners.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

don't tell me there's no racism in the US.
perhaps not against white people and not in all places. but theres even more racism in the US!