Friday, August 08, 2008

My Too-Short Trip to Switzerland

After nearly a month on my own in Italy, I have a chance to enjoy Swizerland with a friend, Gaele, who I met during my Fulbright program. She is a researcher at the university in Lausanne on Lake Geneva. The first thing I learn is that the name Lake Geneva is simply propaganda by the city; the real name is Lake Leman, which I have never heard in my life. So good work, Geneva.

I take easyJet, because it is very cheap, about 100 euros round-trip. It is basically the Southwest of Europe. You're hauled onto the plane like cattle, but they are pretty nice once you find a seat. They sell you food and duty-free junk during the flight. I chuckle as the carts pass by, knowing that when they try this on American flights, nobody buys anything. Here people go to town. The woman next to me spent more on Armani perfume and some junky necklace than I spent on the flight.

Gaele has a modern apartment in Lausanne that she shares with her partner, Phillippe, and their 6-year-old daughter, who is staying with her grandmother in Brittany. We're also joined by Claire, Gaele's goddaughter from Brittany, and Claire's boyfriend, Olivier. They have just completed their exams for admission to the elite higher education institutions in France, the grande ecoles. To pass the exams, you need to spend two to three years after high school graduation studying just for the tests. Then the undergraduate degree is three more years, which just blows my mind. In six years, I had my undergrad degree, two master's degrees, and was halfway finished with my doctorate. Claire and Olivier turn out to be just about the nicest 20-year-olds you'll ever meet.

Due to the effects of my tenure-addled mind, I bought a ticket that had me staying less than two days in Switzerland, which I immediately regret. Switzerland is incredibly beautiful. The lake appears to be everywhere, surrounded by the French Alps in a sort of blurry haze. The effect is ethereal and mesmerizing. The weather is great for my entire visit with highs in the mid-20s and quite dry.

The first night Phillippe cooks a great dinner with sausage and chicken and perfectly grilled vegetables. Clearly, Phillippe and Gaele have mastered seemingly-effortless hospitality. Breakfast is earl grey tea, cappuccino, freshly baked bread and homemade berry jams, which are amazingly delicious. I picture myself at home, pulling old coffee out of the freezer, babbling to guess as I try to remember how to use the machine. I feel like a redneck as I down half a loaf of jam-slathered bread.

Gaele and I spend most of my only full day walking through town and talking about everything along the way. Then we drive to see more cities along the lake, get lost in the mountains, and take a very steep hike to a lookout point. All very beautiful. In the evening, Gaele and Phillippe treat all of us to a traditional cheese fondue. If you've never had it, the cheese is melted and combined with wine and spices, and you dip potatoes and pieces of bread in the cheese. I was a little apprehensive, because my father had a Swiss partner who cooked it for us as a kid, and I really hated it. But this was delicious, and the view of the lake was amazing from our seats on the terrace. I must have drunk about half a bottle of wine.

I learned a lot about Switzerland during my trip, because I knew almost nothing to begin with. Switzerland is not a member of the EU and has not adopted the euro, which is a pain. But after awhile, you get it Ð Switzerland is such a bourgeois paradise that they are not eager to let some vague notion of European integration ruin the party. Unemployment is virtually nonexistent, everyone seems to be at least middle-class if not better, and the schools are very strong. I find out that their daughter, Orane, has field trips with her class that last a week or longer. When she is older, her class will go on government-paid skiing trips. Because it is August, most of the families have taken off for holiday, although I canÕt imagine why since August seems pretty damn nice to me. But if a family can't afford a holiday, there is a free camp all day in the town so children can enjoy a proper staycation with sports and theater.

This is a great comparison with the U.S. The Swiss pay a lot in taxes, but actually feel good about them, because they get a lot of tangible benefits. The problem in the U.S. is that we pay lower taxes but feel like we get nothing in return, because we pay for a lot of things that are essentially invisible to us. We end up in a vicious cycle, where we try to pay less and less because we keep getting less and less for what we pay. You would like the government if you got free ski trips too.

We spend my last morning in town at the Olympic Museum, the big attraction in Lausanne, which Gaele has managed to skip during her three years in town. Amy, Counselor to the Stars, has gone on and on about how great it is since she visited in the 1990s. Well, either something has changed or Amy was high, because we were bored out of our mind. It does have a nice view. Everything seems to have a nice view in Switzerland.

I have only three days left in Rome, which seems crazy. I had almost convinced myself that I live here now. I leave Monday morning for Venice, then mid-week I go to Florence, and I end the week in Milan in preparation for the workshop in Bellagio. It is going to be a heavy travel week, but I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of Italy.

For now I'll watch the Opening Ceremonies. Couldn't that last singer find something nicer to wear than a t-shirt and backward baseball cap? And why does every Opening Ceremony have to be produced by Cirque d'Soleil?


Post a Comment

<< Home