Confoederatio Helvetica

by vpundir | December 2nd, 2007

It’s off to Switzerland for the weekend. The flight’s at 1740, and hoping to find a train cheaper than the Stansted Express, I ride the underground all the way to Tottenham Hale, instead of getting out at Liverpool Street. At Tottenham Hale it emerges that there are no cheap train tickets to Stansted. Oh, well! Stansted Express it is then.

I had checked in online, so it’s straight to the security check, which is a breeze. My boarding group is A so hopefully I’ll be able to choose a decent seat in the plane which, incidentally, is 15 minutes late.

As I go through the gate showing my passport and boarding card, the attendant stops me as she wants my documents checked. She phones some mysterious colleague to come down and have a look.

“I have a passenger here, who has a Pakistani passport…”

“Indian,” I roar.

“I’m sorry, an Indian passport, and has a Schengen visa. Could you come down to check the visa.”

“I’m going to Switzerland, and I don’t need a visa for that because I live here,” I correct her again.

“Are you a UK citizen or resident?”

“No, but I have entry clearance here”

“So, do you have a Swiss visa?”

“Grrr…,” I think but presently try to reason with her, “Listen, it shouldn’t matter to you. If I am going to France or Germany, I have a valid Schengen visa, and if I am going to Switzerland, I don’t need a visa since I have a valid UK entry clearance.”

Of course, I could as well have been talking to a wall. The boarding queue keeps moving and she intermittently keeps trying to reach her elusive colleague over the phone till everyone has boarded the plane and she has had to ask the ground staff and the cabin crew to wait for me.

Ultimately, no one turns up to check whether my visas are genuine, and after a lengthy phone call she just has to tell me that she’s been told that, “It’s okay”

“Sorry about that. We have to check the visas etc, you know? Especially when you are not checking in any luggage.”

“Right! Well, at least I don’t have to worry about finding myself a seat.”

The plane lands in Basel a little late, thanks in part to my contribution, I suppose. I’m the first at the Swiss border police window, and the agent takes all of 30 seconds before waving me through. He doesn’t even stamp an entry on my passport! Hmmm…

My friend is stuck at work and advises me to get to the Zurich Hauptbahnhof, from where I can get a train to Glattbrugg-Opfikon, where he lives and works. The Swiss side of the Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg EuroAirport is pretty small, and I don’t see any currency exchange services in the arrivals lounge. This is quite alright as there is at least one Die Post ATM and a coin vending machine in the lounge.

The chocolate drink from the vending machine is nothing spectacular, but the mango one is.

The ticket machine outside is pretty user-friendly, and apparently I just need to buy one ticket to get to Zurich – this ticket will be valid for my bus journey to the Basel bahnhof and then the train journey to Zurich. Once in the train, I let my friend know that I am on my way.

“I can come pick you up at Zurich, but it would be a little more than an hour,” comes the reply SMS.

“That’s fine,” I say, “It’ll probably take me an hour or so to reach there.”

“You’ll be there in 5 minutes. Check out the bahnhofstrasse, and I’ll SMS you when I get close to the area.”

Hmmm…that’s a fast train, I think.

Just over an hour later, as the train pulls into the Zurich HB, I notice something odd: the platform is adjacent to the road. Essentially, one could just jump out of a car and into a train. Very nice!

Right outside is a nice castle-like building. I promise myself that I’d take a picture of it during the day as it is pretty dark by now and my camera can’t handle such low light. As I start walking towards the bahnhofstrasse, my friend calls me to say that he’s pretty close to the bahnhof now.

He picks me up off the road, and we celebrate with a high-five and a “woohoo” – a running, roadside pickup such as this is quite a feat in this country.

“So, for how long did you have to roam about? What all did you see?”

He is surprised to learn that I just got here, barely moments ago. The surprise lasts till it emerges that he was under the impression that I had landed in Zurich, not Basel.

After parking the car at a casino parking, we set out for a stroll through the city. The weather is very pleasant, with a cool breeze flowing through smoothly, and the city is beautiful. The irregular terrain makes for a spectacle of lights rising on both sides of the lake. The landmarks are ornate and majestic. And the cobblestone-paved lanes are charming and inviting. We try to catch-up on the past one year or so, while admiring and absorbing the beauty of the town at the same time – not an easy juggling act, I have to say.

Before heading home, we stop by at a traditional Swiss eatery where he recommends raclette to me. First arrives a table-top electric grill with small square pans. Then comes a tray of cheese slices, tomatoes, pickled onion, sliced & pickled jalapenos, tomatoes, sauteed mushrooms, roasted courgette and roasted pears. And finally, there’s a sack of boiled potatoes. The steward explains that I should use the pans to melt the cheese. In the meantime, I should pick up the potatoes and slice them in half, thereafter pouring the cheese onto them. It sounds pretty strange to me and I can’t “visualize” the taste. But I do as instructed, and the result blows me away. The food is so good, in fact, that I keep eating long after my hunger is satiated.

And this is just the beginning. As I would discover over the rest of the weekend, I’d be overeating at every single meal, especially the cheese and the chocolates. It’s hard not to – the food is just so good.

Back at his place, we decide to learn and play a board game called Abalone that he had bought a while ago, and has been using as furniture. A little while after 5 of my marbles have been pushed off the board, I have an epiphany: To win, you have to push only six, not all, of the opponent’s marbles off the board. Hmm…I have a feeling that I should lose, but it is well after 3am by the time we are done with the game.

“At what time will you wake up?”, my friend asks.

“7.30-8am perhaps..”

“Okay, wake me up then, so that we can make the best use of the day.”


Of course, we end up celebrating Romania’s national day by sleeping till noon or so. There’s only a few hours worth of sunlight, if it can be called that considering that it’s cool and cloudy, left and we need to find a place that can be reached relatively quickly. I am presented with a list of places that roughly an hour away. I notice a little name peeking from a corner behind the list of all these nice places.

I, being me, have to say, “How about that one?”

“2 hours away”

“Is it worth it?”

And so that’s where we decide to go. Let’s use different routes for getting to and returning from Interlaken, my friend suggests. Splendid idea, I say.

Before that, we should grab a bite, for which we go to a bakery just around the corner. The spinach quiche is huge, and the glass of orange juice is tiny. The warmth is genuine, and the smiles are wide. And the chocolate. Oh, the chocolate. Suffice to say that the house chocolate truffles can only be described as little bits of heaven.

The drive to Interlaken is very pleasant. The scenery is amazingly beautiful in general, but between Luzern and Interlaken it is absolutely, stunningly, breathtaking. Unfortunately, I observe, there aren’t any rest areas by the road where we can stop the car and take a few pictures. On second thought, if they were to build such areas, the whole region is so beautiful that they’d have to build them every 200 metres or so.

Eventually we reach Interlaken, thus named because it is in the middle of two lakes. My linguistically talented friend reads the notice in the parking. We’re in luck – this weekend the parking is free, and the town is organizing its Christkindlmartk, the Christmas market.

The first thing out of the parking lot is a casino, and the second one is a Hooters restaurant. My friend explains that Interlaken is a very popular tourist spot for the Americans. Freshly graduated American university students visit London, Paris, Amsterdam and Interlaken for their “Eurotrips”. Hmmm…interesting.

Interlaken is located between lakes Brienz and Thun and has the Aare river flow through town. The main attraction of the town is mount Jungfrau (German: “virgin”), an astonishingly beautiful mountain with a 4158m high peak. Jungfrau is flanked by Eiger (3,970 m) and Mönch (4,099 m). I have no idea what Eiger means, so I don’t how to characterize the naming of the three peaks as the Virgin, the Monk and Eiger, though I suspect there’s some interesting mythological tale behind the nomenclature.

A train goes right upto the top of Jungfrau, but we don’t have much time today. Thus we decide to check out the town, especially its Christkindlmartk. The town is obviously geared to cater to a large tourist population, but isn’t as “touristy” as some places I have seen. The Christmas market is lively and the vendors are cheerful. Cheese, wine, chocolate and trinkets dominate the stalls, though the general feel is jarred by the odd stall selling HD-ready televisions or the flashy plastic merry-go-round.

Cheese, cookies, chocolate, almost everything is available for free sampling, and we take advantage of the offer at a few places. What I do buy is magenbrot, the very filling, cinnamon and chocolate-frosted bread.

It’s getting dark and there’s not too much to do around town now.

“How about going further down to Lauterbrunnen, which is an absolutely gorgeous small village, and then we can get back here…perhaps the market will look better with the lights,” my friend suggests.

“Fantastic idea.”

Lauterbrunnen is all that and more. The gorge overlooking the village is gorgeous. The thin stream of a waterfall from the top of the cliff by the parking lot itself takes your breath away, especially as midway down, it goes through a deposit of snow – the only snow one can see on this side of the mountain.

The train from Interlaken to Jungfrau goes through here, and the houses in the basin make for as picturesque a setting as there can be. Unfortunately it too dark by now for pictures, but we keep shooting nonetheless. The train going through the mountains is the favorite subject, closely followed by the electric “star” lit up at the top of the cliff.

When we get back to Interlaken, the Christkindlmartk is busier, more cheerful, and better looking under the Christmas lights. We enjoy roasted chestnuts, crepes, and the festive atmosphere to the hilt and, under force of habit, click some pictures. I am told that Interlaken is a perpetual Bollywood favorite, and hosts hundreds of Indian film shootings every year. Since the late 80s, when terrorism drove movie producers out of Kashmir, Bollywood producers have been shooting in Switzerland, and apparently Interlaken is their favorite location.

While in town, I get a picture taken with Aishwarya Rai. Too bad that her presence is only as a picture on a small Longines poster. What’s even more pathetic is that as soon as we saw this multi-brand luxury-goods shop with a Longines sign on it, we went in with the specific purpose of taking this picture, asking at least 4 attendants, from as many ethnicities, where the Longines department was. As my friend clicks my picture with Ms.Rai (now Mrs. Bachchan, but we can ignore that part for now), the Russian shop attendant shakes her head in disbelief. Boys will be boys.

On our way back home, we stop in Berne, the Swiss capital. The city of the bear is not a popular tourist destination, but is charming in its own way. Soon it starts to rain, and as my friend explains, it is good to be in Berne when it rains as the walkways/ arcade in the market are covered a la Picadilly Circus in London or Connaught Circus in New Delhi. In fact, the 6 kilometers of arcades form one of the longest covered shopping promenades in Europe.

There are bears everywhere, which is not surprising considering the fact that the city got its name from a bear that the founder Duke Berthold had killed. And there are characteristic Berne fountains. The Zytglogge clock tower, which has served as guard tower, prison, clock tower and civic memorial, showcases not just its 15th century astronomical clock, but also standard measures of length. The Münster, a 15th century Gothic cathedral, is majestic, as is the square of the Bundeshaus (Parliament House).

We wander around, taking pictures at every possible opportunity till we have to eat for the fear of the eateries closing down. For dinner, we get into one of a long line of Italian places, where I get some nice risotto porcini, served in large portions.

After a little adventure of getting lost and finding our way back again, we head back home.

On Sunday we get up a little earlier, i.e. 9am or so.

As we are getting ready, my friend decides to take a look at my blog, and only then realizes that in September I went to Romania, his home country! I can’t believe that we never discussed that since we have communicated after my trip, but obviously we didn’t as I can’t recall any specific instance when we did. I guess sometimes it is possible to miss the blindingly obvious, like the Washington school forgetting to put Christmas on their calendar. It’s even more ironic since for a while the quotation in the footer of my work email has been G.B.Shaw’s, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

That discovery made, we need to pick up a gift for a friend next. Since everything in the town is closed on Sunday, we drive down to the airport to buy the present. The airport is the scene for a few more hilarious communication gaffes, and we are incredulous and in splits by the time we get out of the airport parking.

For lunch we’ve been invited to a friend’s place. My friend tells me that the hostess is a Romanian married to a Swiss gentleman of Vietnamese ethnicity.

It’s directly to the dining table at her place as we have evidently kept everyone waiting. I enjoy the salată de vinete (the Romanian Baba Ghanoush) with black olive bread and roma tomatoes till my stomach begs me to stop. And then it’s time for a homebaked plum pie and a creamy chocolaty fudge. Additionally, there is the warm, sugary, syrupy, cinnamon and spice drink which seems like the perfect thing to have in a log cabin on a snowy winter evening.

While our hostess has been in Switzerland for over 9 years now, during which she has completed a PhD in organizational cybernetics and worked in different parts of the country, she remembers having watched Bollywood movies in her childhood: specifically, Ek Phool Do Maali (One flower and two gardeners), and Awara (the vagabond). I am told that a few decades ago many people names their sons Rege (Raj) after the Indian actor Raj Kapoor.

We talk about how my friend visited my hometown in India before I could, and then this year how I paid back by visiting Romania while he was slogging in Zurich. My friend explains to the hostess that we’re like twins: like brothers, he has to do what I do and vice versa. I’ve long thought of him as my “brother from another mother, kinda like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover,” but it was nice to hear him say it.

Our hostess recalls with a start that it’s time for the Euro 2008 draw – declaration of the groups. So the TV is switched from a subtitled music station to the Euro 2008 live telecast. To the charging of my friend and my hostess, Romania has been placed in group C with France, Italy and Netherlands, the toughest possible competition for them.

Looking for the silver lining, we laugh that at least Romania will get more and better coverage now. Firstly, it’s better to be crushed by a Rolls Royce than by a Yugo. Moreover, the group puts Romania in stellar company…the news would read something like, “France and Romania kicked out of the world cup”…even in failure, Romania will be accompanied by some of the best in business. Most importantly, we half-joke, strong competition will elevate Romania’s game – it plays best against strong team, and manages to lose to the weak ones.

This is the best thing that could have happened to Romania, I philosophise. For one, it’s liberating. There’s no pressure now. The team can just go out there and play their game. And secondly, if they go through into the next stage, there is a reasonable chance that they’d be pitted against a weak team.

There’s more reason to cheer as all of Romania’s group matches will be either in Zurich or Berne, enabling my friends here to be there. Amidst loud laughter, there’s some talk about turning up for the matches in traditional Romanian costumes to attract the cameras. In fact, the hostess observes, she should dress up her husband in a Romanian costume for the match as “Romanian team’s only foreign fan”.

Then, inevitably, the Romanians start talking to each other in Romanian. Our host begs them to slow down. He understands Romanian, but they are speaking too fast for him.

“Yes,” I agree, “Romanians have a funny Romanian accent when they speak in Romanian.”

Our host needs to leave to give his mother a computer lesson. He has been struggling with providing her telephonic support. My friend suggests a remote-terminal program which he says can solve the problem by letting one take control of another computer over the Internet. Unless, of course, the problem is that the Internet is not working.

“If your phone is not working, call us at our toll-free number,” says he.

A bright day. Good food. The company of friends. What else does one need?

In the train back to Basel, when I present the return ticket to the inspector, I am advised that it is not valid anymore, that it expired on Friday. When I bought the ticket on Friday, the machine had asked “Travelling today or another date” and I had selected “today”, thinking the question referred only to the onward journey, but evidently the answer determined the validity of the return ticket too. So I buy a ticket to Basel and ask my kindly inspector who doesn’t speak or understand English if the return ticket I bought on Friday is useless. She takes the ticket and tells me that she’d ask her superintendent. After a while she returns with a giant of a man who hands me my expired ticket with a scribbling on the back. Says he, “I’ve written on this that you have paid today for the return journey. But the chances that they’ll refund any money are very minimal.” At the Basel bahnhof, however, the ticket agent is very helpful, and refunds my money right away, no questions asked.

The Basel Airport Hotel and Basel Grand Casino look really cool, bathed as they are in different colored lights. These places were designed for the colored lights though, unlike the ones in Manchester where it is a travesty as they shine all these colored lights on buildings with Gothic or Greek architectures.

At the airport, the security “line” is a breeze as there is no line at all. The departure status board indicates that my flight is due to leave from gate 3. After going through a hunting expedition, I reach the conclusion that the airport doesn’t have gates 3 through 19! Hmmm…a friendly security agent advises me as to the general area where EasyJet flights take off from. Turns out that the flight will take off from gate 82.

All in all, what a fun weekend, and what a funny weekend indeed! Fun because I was able to meet a good friend after a long time and visit such a beautiful country. Funny because of the whole background track of “comedy of errors”, with the numerous “Whaaaaaaat?” moments.

Like my friend says, weekends like this make working through the weeks seem worth it.

Click here to check out my pictures from Interlaken, Lauterbrunnen and Berne of 1 Dec 2007.

3 Responses to “Confoederatio Helvetica”

  1. dude! this is life in more detail than i remember living it in :). hamazing.

  2. Wow! we are impressed as well by your sense of detail. And your adjectives “masala” 😉 makes your real-life story funny to read.
    Btw. would you like to work as a freelance sports journalist in summer promoting Romania’s team? Well, a blog-coverage would be also fine. 😉
    Hope to see you again,
    Your Romanian-Vietnamese-Swiss connection

  3. Thank you! I’d be happy to freelance, as long as that means I can watch the games 🙂

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