Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Planes, Trains, Automobiles, Boats, Gondolas, and Cable Cars

When I went to yoga yesterday, one of the women in my class asked, "Is Switzerland as clean as everyone says?"

"Yes," I said. I have no idea how they do it. The streets are clean, the train stations are clean, the public bathrooms are clean (and, in some cases, self-cleaning: one by the famous lion statue in Lucerne actually automatically cleaned itself when you opened the stall door. I suppose in case you forgot to flush.). Switzerland is about the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combine; in our time there, we visited most of the major areas, including the cities of Zurich, Lucerne, Geneva, and Bern, and, looking back, I realize I never once saw a panhandler or a person sleeping rough, not in train stations, public parks, not anywhere. I've never before been in a major city where this is true. I'm not sure what that means--whether Switzerland takes better care of their poor and mentally ill, or whether they're just better at hiding them than the rest of us. I can say that the place is very clean.

Also the Swiss love summer. They love growing things. They hang window boxes full of flowers all over their houses--not just in the tourist areas, but anywhere you go. They have some of the most meticulously-maintained garden plots I've ever seen, and they seem willing to stick gardens anywhere. There were vegetable gardens and chicken runs in the middle of Zermatt, a fancy Alpine skiing village roughly akin to Vail or Aspen, except I'm pretty sure they don't allow chickens in Vail, and nobody gives up prime real estate in Aspen to grow potatoes. They were making hay anywhere and everywhere grass would grow--city parks, whatever--and if the field wasn't big enough to justify baling the hay they just raked it up and stuffed a small barn full of it.

I'd heard before that you could set your watch by Swiss trains, and I'm here to tell you it's true. If the train is scheduled to leave at 6:11, its brakes will release softly as the second hand swoops past the 12 on the station clock. 6:11 precisely. Everyone buys tickets but they're only rarely checked--apparently the fine for not having a ticket is big enough to deter freeloaders. Once, however, we accidentally sat in the first-class section of a ferry despite having only bought second-class tickets. (I didn't know there were two classes on boat to begin with.) The ticket-checker said, in excellent English, (the number of Swiss people with excellent English is staggering, and embarrassing, as was the fact that they seemed to all switch to English as soon as they looked at me), "Buy an upgrade, or move downstairs." (We moved downstairs. The view there was even more interesting, because the ferry was actually a steam-powered paddlewheel boat, over 100 years old, and we moved down by the wheel. I never knew they turned so fast.)

The Swiss love the outdoors, their mountains, their "Wanderwegs," (posted walking trails), but they're also nuts about modern technology, and this means they put very good roads where no sane nation would even try. Mountains? Heck, just dig a hole through 'em. I've never seen so many tunnels. Never imagined a place would try to dig so many tunnels. And maintain them. Beautifully. Then, because all the Swiss want to enjoy the mountains, and more importantly want all the tourists to enjoy the mountains, they find ways of hauling people up the mountains.

We rode the steepest cogwheel train in existence to the top of Mount Pilatus. We rode a local train up Mount Rigi, slowing at various mailboxes along the way to drop off mail. (Each bundle squarely tied with white twine.) We rode another cogwheel train in Zermatt that stayed wholly inside a mountain. We rode gondolas and cable cars and learned to tell the difference, though we're still not clear why you would sometimes build a gondola and sometimes a cable car. We rode two different elevators up inside a mountain, one to get to our hotel from a James-Bond sort of cave, and one to be able to walk around inside the mountain perilously near a massive waterfall that crashes several hundred feet through a sort of sinkhole. My husband thinks human beings aren't supposed to get as close to that as we did.

We drove onto a train, purely accidentally. But that's a story for tomorrow.