Tuesday, October 23, 2007


After at least one cancelled trip, Mickey and I finally made it to Ticino, the Italian speaking part of Switzerland, and spent an enjoyable weekend there with our friends Daniel and Sirpa. We knew we couldn't leave Switzerland without having visited this southern canton not only because we'd heard they had good risotto, but just because they speak Italian and are still part of Switzerland.

As an American leading a mostly monolingual life, it has been hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that there are three national languages here. The packaging information on supermarket items is printed in three languages; how is it that our product labels are printed in one language but still take up the same amount of space on the package? I guess Swiss manufacturers have learned how to express ideas like "containing 30 essential vitamins and minerals" pictorally as to avoid printing "enthält 30 wichtige Vitamine und Mineralas, 30 contenant des vitamines et des mineralas, Contenente 30 vitamine essenziali e mineralas."

English language films are shown with both German and French subtitles and most Swiss learn all three of these languages in school, German, French and English, that is, not Italian. I guess it makes sense because only about eight percent of the Swiss population speaks Italian, but it made me feel kind of sorry for and incredibly curious about the Ticinese. Do they feel like outsiders in their own country? Is language or nationality more important to their senses of identity? When Switzerland plays against Italy in soccer I assume the Ticinese root for Switzerland, but do they have to watch the match on an Italian channel to hear commentary they can understand?

After spending a weekend in Ticino on Lago Maggiore, I was able to answer none of the above questions, but I did walk away with a turquoise necklace and a comparison that helps me make sense of my trilingual host country. I tried to imagine what the United States would be like if it were divided into three distinct cultural and linguistic regions. The Swiss German speaking part of Switzerland is known to be a little more conservative than the rest of the country, so I decided that this region could be compared to the Midwestern and southern parts of the US. The French speaking west of Switzerland, however, is more... French actually; it's slightly more relaxed with a bit more flavor. Perhaps this region can be compared to the American east coast and New England. Those areas are not as conservative as the south or Midwest, but they can be snobby.

That leaves us with Ticino and its American counterpart. Paola (and loads of other Swiss) love Ticino; "you see the palm trees and immediately you start to relax," she says. Okay, palm trees, relaxing, known for good food... Ticino must of course be compared with California. Yes, we had a weekend away in the California of Switzerland. It made us feel so at home that we decided to play a friendly round (we usually make wagers when we play) of mini golf in Lugano.

One crucial difference between Ticino and California, however, is their relationships to their southern neighbors. Unless one has family down Mexico way or is compelled to party underage, most Californians keep their distance from Tijuana and Baja California. Travelling from Ticino southward into Italy, however, is obviously quite different. There were only a couple of restaurants to choose from in the Lago Maggiore town where we stayed so we figured, 'why not drive down to Italy for dinner?' In less than twenty minutes we were waved across the border and thinking in Euros again. The restaurant we chose was a little touristy, but good and worth the 'we drove down to Italy for dinner' story.

I'm curious about how other travellers perceive of Europe and how they compare these exotic locales to the regions of home. Has anyone found the Berkeley of France, the Vegas of China, or the Yosemite of New Zealand? Perhaps it is inappropriate to equate these places that are truly unique, but the human brain naturally loves making comparisons. Regardless of whether Ticino is the California of Switzerland or not, I feel lucky that I was able to experience it first hand and make the comparison in the first place. As my friend Daniel would say while sitting down to an espresso and gazing across the lake, "life is tough."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Tradition with a Twist

If you were to ask a Swiss person what the nation's most sterotypically Swiss region is, he/she might mention Appenzell. Known for breathtaking mountain vistas, quaint dairy farms and a potent cheese by the same name, Appenzell in the eastern part of Switzerland fits the bill. When our friend Martin, who grew up in this serene spot, invited us to spend the weekend at his family's home in Appenzell, of course we didn't think twice before saying 'ja!'

Saturday began with a rather strenuous but rewarding hike up a mountain. While huffing and puffing up the trail I remembered that I do not like hiking and do it only for the guilt-free meal that follows. Indeed, the hike was rewarding not only because of the view from the top, but because I allowed myself to order french fries when it was over. Lucky for me, Switzerland is a haven for hikers who don't really like hiking. You can always find restaurants along the clearly marked trails and can opt to take the gondola back to your car in case you wuss out.

On Saturday evening we had a traditional raclette dinner and then visited a cheese factory and an authentically restored Swiss farmhouse/museum the next afternoon. We saw paintings and photos of traditional Swiss wrestling and people voting on local laws by raising their hands in the town square. The biggest take-away from this place was the notion of tradition, cultural practices that the Swiss embrace and carry on into the twenty first century.

Before we drove home on Sunday evening, Martin led us on a walk up the hill from his parents' house to a neighbor's farm where he used to shovel hay when he was a little boy. He introduced us to the farmer and we all stood around and watched while he milked the cows by attaching a vaccuum pump to their udders. When the containers holding the milk became full, the farmer would dump them into a larger tank which wouldn't pasteurize the milk, but simply refrigerate it until the milk trucks came to pick it up. As he shoveled fresh hay, the farmer pointed out which cows were pregnant and told stories (Martin translated) about how he'd sometimes wake in the morning to find a new calf in the pen. Everything on this farm sounded very natural, like things had been happening the same way for centuries.

We said goodbye to the farmer and Martin led us further up the hill, toward a quaint farmhouse with a black Audi parked in the driveway. "This is the farmer's house," Martin said pointing to the house "and this is his boyfriend's car," he said pointing to the Audi. I asked Martin to repeat himself because the notion of the farmer being gay just didn't jibe with my notion of who Swiss farmers are and how they live their lives. I think it's great, though that in this small pocket of Switzerland we cannot assume that the country folk are all 'conservative' just as we cannot lump all urbanites, especially in Zurich, into the 'liberal' category.

In this beautiful picture of Appenzeller life the farmer still rises at 4am to milk the cows, but does he return to the farmhouse for a breakfast of eggs and bacon with the Frau? No, perhaps this farmer checks his email and sits down for a cappucino with his partner. It's tradition, but with a twist.