Monday, December 24, 2012

Santa in Switzerland

Well, truth be told there isn’t one. Well at least not the roly poly ho ho ho ing Santa from the north pole that slides down chimneys on Christmas eve. There is of course, Samichlaus who comes in from the forest on December the 6th and rings the doorbell. He is really St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra and the patron saint of Children. His presents are always small : chocolates, nuts, oranges. He is sometimes accompanied by his friend; a soot covered figure called Schmutzli who it is said chastises kids who have been bad. Well, actually it is assumed that all children will have been a little good and a little bad and this is the time of the year they are rewarded for the good, take stock of their not so good and promise to try harder the next year.  Santa decorations are not seen often, and the ones I saw, the Santa was always lean, carries a backpack rather than a sac and is clambering in through a balcony or window rather than a chimney. 

Santa making somewhat precarious attempts to get in through the windows
Montreaux Christmas market

What is perhaps most striking is the relative absence of a commercial Christmas. Here it is not about  mega malls outdoing each other with the largest and brightest and fanciest glitz, not about retail frenzy, but about street markets selling local goods and lots of food.

It’s less about over the top celebrations and extravaganza and more about people retreating into family mode. It’s more about carols, mulled wine (always plenty of that), cookies, communities and Christmas traditions.

nativity scene at our local library
Muted, mellow ……………and as you sit in picture postcard Montreaux with the ethereal lake framed by snow capped mountains, the smell of cinnamon cookies wafting by, faint strains of church bells in the distance and as you chance upon a mother sitting with a glass of mulled wine huddled up to a toddler eating roasted chestnuts both listening to a grandfatherly man narrating a French Christmas story, the mellifluous French not needing to be understood to grasp its meaning……………….. you do not need to be Swiss, you do not need to be religious, you do not need to be Christian, you do not need to be a child ……….for those few moments, despite the incredibly troubled world we live in, you cannot but believe in magic, in humanity, in hope.  The hope that perhaps the Samichlaus in us can take precedence over the Schmutzli. 

Season's Greetings to all. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Inducted into cooking

I discovered the day we moved into our new house some months ago, that I could not cook.

Actually, I could not even put on the stove. The gleaming black 4 plate surface looked like the one I had in my old apartment but no matter what I did, I could not get the plates to become hot. Handyman husband (self proclaimed) was called in, all he could come up with was 'you must be doing something wrong'. 

I began to harbour visions of a conspiracy between owner, previous tenants and the Regie (agent).......... but given that we had signed off on the house inspection and faced with the possibility of being reprimanded for our carelessness, not to mention the thought of several thousand Swiss francs evaporating before my eyes, I duly squashed such uncharitable thoughts.   

But two days into the house, six hours of google translate with the French and Italian instruction booklet, three cereal for breakfast, three cereal for lunch and three cereal for dinner meals later, it was time for action.  

I called the previous tenants. No doubt taken aback, the lady politely offers to take me through the steps. You press the button on your left, you wait for the red light, then you select a number from 1 to 9 ………
No, this does not work. She assure me it does. I assure her it does not; biting back the urge to ask if it ever did. Back and forth. Frustration rises on both sides. Finally she asks ‘Are you sure you have the right vessels?’ . Wondering whether to take offence, I answer “What do you mean?” I have a perfectly good frying pan. Its Swiss I might add. 25 years guarantee”. She persists: Yes, but is it the right kind?
And so I am initiated into the hitherto unknown to me wonders of induction cooking. Cooking which works through direct transmission of heat from the hob to the pot through magnetic waves. Its becoming increasingly the norm in newer houses and apartments in Switzerland. Its as precise as gas cooking, more energy efficient and safer. The only drawback is that it works only if the cookware is ferromagentic. 
Not all vessels are. Pan after pan, pot after pot, beautiful cookware inherited from my mother, my 25 year guarantee Swiss pan, my cheap  new to Switzerland collection from IKEA, my specially brought pressure cooker from India ………none worked. I had a modern kitchen and nothing to cook with!

But after the initial shock, it was excitement all the way. How often in life can one indulge in a guilt free, husband endorsed revamp of all the cookware one owns?? 

I love this type of cooking now and find it easier to use than the gas stoves I have grown up with. Whats more, I discovered a great fact: if you put a paper between the stove and the pan, the pan gets hot, not the paper!. So i often cook with a newspaper spread under my pots and save myself cleaning up my messy spills. Whats more, I never fail to start a most amazing dinner conversation by showing off this trick ...............

the water boils 80 francs are unharmed!

Information tip : For those of you in Switzerland, the Swiss Government has a fact sheet and a list of rules, dos and donts (is there anything for which there are no rules in Switzerland?) for induction stoves at this link : Induction Hobs 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Autumn walk in Aubonne

Every expat in the Lake Geneva area has heard of Aubonne. Every expat in the Lake Geneva area has been to Aubonne. It is after all, home to the ultimate expat pilgrimage center ......IKEA. The store that unifies the diversity of our expat origins and homogenizes our homes with an unmistakable stamp that cries "hey, look I am new to Switzerland".

But Aubonne, nestled between the lake and the Juras is more than IKEA!

The Aubonne River just beyond the hydroelectric plant

A pretty town, beautiful rolling hillsides (walking along which a certain Monsieur Mestral found inspiration in the burrs that became attached to his clothes and went on to invent Velcro), the river Aubonne and a large arboretum (the first in Switzerland).  

Aubonne castle framing the mountain peaks with the fresh snowfall
This weekend as we had our first December snowfall (which vanished almost as soon as it fell) we gave IKEA a miss and went walking around near the outskirts of Aubonne besides the Aubonne river.  A few pictures. 
Autumn turning to winter

Aubonne is largely an agricultural community

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Chandigarh Connection

So what does Swiss money and India have in common? And no, I am not referring to secret Swiss bank accounts and scandals………………

Chandigarh! The back of the Swiss 10 franc note (in use since 1997) carries a schematic representation of Chandigarh’s city center .  Unless you look at it knowing what it is, it’s not easy to link the geometric rectangles, half rectangles and I shapes that one sees to anything but a random computer generated pattern………..but once you know, it falls into place. Much more easily recognizable, is what’s on the other side of the 10 franc note, the image of Le Corbusier. 

A picture who anyone who went to school in India, knows as a familiar figure in text books as the man who designed India’s  ‘first and only planned city’. I always thought he was French and he was by citizenship but he was born here in Switzerland and the Swiss do like to claim him as their own. 

He was born in the little town of La Chaux-de-Fonds (Ok, ok, the Swiss call this less than 40,000 people place a large city) in the Jura mountains near Neuchatel and a hop and a skip from the French border. 
La Chaux-de-Fonds
When we went there last year to see the watch museum for which it is better known, it did not seem different from other towns in the region (except that all the trees in the city are trimmed so that their tops are exactly at 1000m above sea level) but coincidentally, this town has the honour of being the only planned city in Switzerland and is itself built in a chessboard like grid pattern. Maybe some of what became Chandigarh drew inspiration from his childhood town.

For those living in the area or planning  to be, Chaux-de Fonds is celebrating Corbusier’s 125th birth anniversary this year and there are numerous exhibitions, walking tours, book launches and events running till January 2013 and one of his earliest works the Villa Turque  will be open to visitors . Ironically, while his birth town celebrates, newspapers in India have recently been carrying stories of how the house in which Le Corbusier lived for 17 years in Chandigarh is itself in a state of ruin and many of Chandigarh’s buildings are facing a similar fate, neglect and worse still theft. Equally ironically, while Chaux-de-Fonds is a UNESCO World Heritage site, Chandigarh is still to attain that status.

I confess, though always wanting to and despite all the years living in India, I have never managed to go to Chandigarh but at least now I can say I have made the pilgrimage to honor a man whom I have admired since class 6.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The most expensive school in the my backyard!

Le Rosey from the other side of the fence
When we moved from the outskirts of Geneva to the little town of Rolle some 30 km away a few months ago, I was excited about everything except the long and rather expensive train commute to work for me and to school for my daughter.

A colleague offered a helpful suggestion ...that I think about transferring her to the very nice English/French school right in my own little town. Excited about the idea of a neighbourhood school even in this small town of less than 6000 people, I explore further. I realise that the school is just a 5 min walk away, almost my backyard.

I download the prospectus. Oh, oh. Like the disclaimers on cigarette packs, it carries a warning "We would advise you to read the financial conditions below before proceeding with the application".

Ah, dreams meet reality. The school fees alone (forget the extras) ...hold your breath ........CHF 99,300 (105,000 dollars) per year ! More expensive than a university education at Harvard or MIT or indeed the most expensive colleges in the world. Even in the land where everything costs more than anywhere else in the world, this seems a bit over the top.

But then, as I discover; Le Rosey is the most expensive and arguably the most elite school in the whole world! Sometimes called the 'school of kings' , its where the Shah of Iran, the King of Belgium, Aga Khan IV, the Rothschilds studied and where the future king of Bhutan, Hollywood star children and I believe Russian millionaires still do ..........   

Befitting royalty I suppose, the school has 10 tennis courts, 3 football pitches, 2 swimming pools, a shooting ring, an archery range, a sailing centre, an 18 hole golf course, an equestrian centre, a circus tent to amuse the little ones  ...I am sure they also have classrooms of course. And if that's not enough, come winter, the whole school moves itself to a winter campus up in the mountains and closer to the ski slopes! 
A momentary glimpse into the elite world
but these gates shall forever remain closed
As my husband and I and the dog walk past the school gates some evenings, the teenagers that seem to emerge in and out at times seem to look like 'normal' teenagers and i suppose they struggle with homework, acne, and teenage angst too   ..........though in my mind its hard to imagine 'normal' in this insulated bubble world.  

As my morning train glides by the football pitches and archery ranges, I feel relived to be a mere plebeian. And the 1,300 francs I pay for an annual train pass for my daughter to commute to her school in Geneva begins to feel like a wonderful bargain after all. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Swiss Stupa: The Bhutan Bridge

So here we were at a camp near Susten (check the post on Swiss camping sites  ) making our escape from the 5 star luxury and taking a walk through the Alpine woods. Pristine forests, the ubiquitous cows, Swiss hikers with their walking sticks. Every cliché one expects .........until we take a bend in the road that is. Voila that really what i think it is ............

What is a chorten (stupa) doing in the middle of Swiss German countryside? My eastern sensibilities intrigued and excited I venture closer and there in front of me is a long bridge lined with little prayer cloths fluttering in the breeze ............

As I soon discover, this is the Bhutan Bridge,  a 134 meter long, 1 meter wide suspension bridge that traverses the Ilgraben trench in the Pfyn forest in the Valais.  It is quite new, having been built in 2005 as a gift from Bhutan. It was designed by a Bhutanese architect to be in line with the suspension bridges that have historically lined rivers in Bhutan.

It should have been no surprise really. Bhutan and Switzerland share a special bond. Landlocked and mountainous, of almost exactly the same size and similar in their wealth of natural beauty. Despite their vast differences in monetary resources both are among the 'happiest countries' of the world (trivial aside: the happiest country of all is Denmark). Switzerland has been a major source of development aid to Bhutan as it has opened to the world.

The bridge is meant to symbolise friendship and to traverse the Rosti divide as well ...the legendary divide between the German speaking and French speaking parts of Switzerland. Now, I think it would take more than a gently swaying bridge from the east to close that gap!

The incongruities are there ....the picnic table within 10 meters of the stupa and occupied by a family enjoying beer and sausage, the almost total absence of color (white seems to be a Swiss obsession), the original prayer clothes long gone to be replaced by just pieces of cloth .............

But still , as the white cloths flutter gracefully, their sounds mingling with the distant Swiss cowbells in almost perfect melody ...........east, west, German, all seems irrelevant. So much for clichés about Switzerland.
the bridge casting a shadow over the Ilgraben

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Turning Swiss in Scotland

Edinburgh castle from the street where i turned Swiss
I was in Edinburgh last weekend, finding my way from the bus to my hotel. Being somewhat map challenged and also somewhat unable to always tell the difference between my right and left, I found that I could not figure out how to walk 50 m to the right, take the first left after the first light on my right and 200 meters more around the bend  ....oh dear, time to stop and ask for directions.
So here I am on a street called Earl Gray, at the foot of Edinburgh castle and Scottish history, outside a pub called The Red Blazer or some such, stopping a burly Scotsman with a pipe .....and i go "Excusez moi, est la ootel pooaa (The Point Hotel)". Me who, still needs a calculator to convert quatre vingt dix huit into a number, me who still goes to the hair stylist and blithely asks her to please couper mon cheval (horse) instead of my cheveux, me who still begins every conversation in Switzerland with a "Parlez vous Anglais?" ..................

The Scottish gentleman looks at me perplexed. A very identifiably Indian woman, in the heart of Mother England (well ok Scotalnd is not quite England but you get what i mean), attempting to sound French.

"Whats that you said Lassie" goes the poor fellow ...........and i reply with 'pooa, ootel ,poooa ....trying variations in pronunciation trying to sound more French ..........while he says. "lady, you speak English?"

Voila! Reality dawns........I giggle, he looks even more bewildered. I manage to mumble ' Ah, yes, I should speak English, shouldn't I? I mean the Point Hotel, you know, Bread Street' .........I continue to giggle, he continues to look at me with a look of disbelief but points me in the direction I need to go. 

I find my way to the said hotel and as i sit in my room and look out at Edinburgh castle, I realise that Suisse Romandie has really seeped into me. The next time someone in Geneva asks me 'Parlez vous Francais?', I shall proudly say 'Mais, oui. but only in Scotland!' 

Friday, October 26, 2012

The North face of the Eiger : Mannlichen without the crowds

Repairing the Grindelwald- Mannlichen gondola with the North Face in the background
Mannlichen, a little village in the Bernese Oberland, 7,600 feet in the sky. In the summer it overflows with tourists and hikers and in winter with skiers but go there as we did on a week day at the end of October and see it revert back to a sleepy hamlet with more cows than people.

Sun and fog playing hide and seek at Grindelwald
The route to Mannlichen begins at the famous tourist resort of Grindelwald. A must on every tourist itinerary, it seems to be a frequent haunt of the Japanese given the large Japanese information centre in the town centre and the unusual spectacle of several signs being written in Japanese as well as German. Grindelwald is the start of the 6 km 30 min gondola ride up to to Mannlichen, in what used to once be the longest ropeway in the world. But there is a bus that offers a cheaper option. And of course the fit and daring can bike or hike up.

Our day began with a dose of Swiss hospitality. At the outskirts of Grindelwald, we stopped at a hotel to ask directions. The friendly waiter did his best with the help of a German map and his limited English and was nice enough also to give the aged parents who were with us on the trip, permission to use the restroom. No sooner did they go in however, out came the grim faced owner who in an accusatory don't you know this already voice told us that we should not stop in front of her hotel as it was not allowed and that her restrooms have to be kept free for guests at all times. That there were no guests of any kind for miles around and that the little road in front was more likely to see a cow than a car seemed not to matter. Suitably chastened we proceeded upwards.

Jungfrau as seen from Mannlichen
But ruffled feelings were soon forgotten amidst the symphony of the tingling cowbells and the majesty of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau looming before us. The North Face looked every bit the 'murder wall' and both its allure and its treachery that has taken the lives of so many were not hard to imagine. Mannlichen provides incredible views of these three Alpine giants.

I don't know what the village feels like when full of people but seen as we saw it, framed by its mountain magic, endless walking possibilities, the restaurants all closed, and human company limited largely to the occasional farmer chopping wood  is Swiss beauty at its pristine best  ..........the kind that makes you want to say 'If there is paradise on earth, its is here, it is here'.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Camping ...Swiss style

A tent in the wilderness, you against the elements….a river to bathe in, a wood fire to cook rice and boil eggs after a long day out walking …………basic, back to nature.
Armed with tent and these romantic clichés of camping trips back home in India, we set out on our first camping adventure here in Switzerland. But there is no raw wilderness and unexplored expanses in the middle of nowhere in this country. And even if there were, you would not be allowed to camp in them. Well, though I know a few people who did  end up camping in the woods; trying anything that could conceivably be illegal, takes a lot of expat courage in Switzerland so we felt morally compelled to limit ourselves to designated campsites.
So there we were, tent in hand at a four star camp (yes camps here have star ratings too) in the Valais, our romantic notions still largely unshaken. An hour later we find ourselves on a small  square pitch of land on a street lined cheek by jowl with orange, red and green contraptions (some with multiple rooms) on either side and separated by a narrow ‘street’ to park cars.  Washing hanging out to dry, kids running amuck. An incongruous, inappropriate, irreverent thought flashes past my mind before I can stop myself .. ‘Dharavi, Mumbai’ …….. (for those unfamiliar with this, according to Wikipedia, this is a locality in Mumbai where nearly a million people live in an area less than 1 square mile).
It didn't take us long to discover the other luxuries that lay in wait ………

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Wine not water ........

My cuppeth run over ..the steel barrel where the wine ferments

I came drunk to work last week ………well ok I didn't swagger, stagger or sway. I suppose I could have counted from 10 to 1 backward had I tried. I didn't slur, except of course when trying to pronounce Rolle in my French class …………………but I reeked of the stuff. Wine to be precise. Fine La Cote Chasselas, I might add. Strange looks from fellow commuters while I bore a sheepishly stoic look  but hey at least I got ample sitting place on the train that morning!!
Drinking binge at 6 am on a Wednesday, you ask? Mid week office blues notwithstanding, I did no such thing. I only slipped and fell on my way to catching the usually 30 second late train (for which I was 45 seconds late) …………Well, big deal, people all over the world slip and fall into puddles when they run for trains. Except, that in Switzerland, puddles of water are passé. If you fall, it needs to be a lake of wine …
My run to the station takes me through a winery. At this time of the year it is abuzz with activity: harvested grapes being de stemmed and crushed and the juice being pressed, crushed and left to ferment in several story high large steel barrels that line the courtyard. Invariably, the barrels overflow and it was into one of these pools that I unsuspectingly fell! A quick change of clothes (I always keep them handy at office in case of alcoholic accidents you see) and I was sober. Well, maybe not quite ………well they do say that alcohol does get absorbed through the skin. So my first drunken experience …………and I don't even drink!!

swiss trains are never late ...or are they?

Trains in Switzerland are never late………. You can set your clock by them. Not quite …… least not here in Geneva. Being a commuter, I know this only too well. Where I lived before our recent move, my daily routine consisted of taking a train that arrived at my little one track station at 7.37 am (or 7.38 or even, god forbid, 7.39), getting off 17 mins later to dash for the 7.58 bus that took me to office. Four minutes …………. perfectly timed for the average Swiss citizen, to athletically take long quick strides to the bus stop and reach there with all of 24 seconds to spare. Catch is ……the timetables are probably made by makers of Swiss clocks, no accounting for real people or real life.