"Yes, yes." you say. "That's all very well about the expensive muffins, but didn't you promise to say more about Switzerland?" Gold star to you, faithful reader. That shows real attentiveness on your part. I did say that. Donc, voila.
My cousin and her husband (let's just call them my cousins for simplicity's sake. Rest assured they are related to each other only by marriage) have been living in Switzerland for twenty years and though I have been kind of/sort of in the neighborhood many times, I have never managed to actually see them there. And so, I put it on the famous Life List and ta da! It happened. There was no magical teleporting or anything. Life Lists are good, but not that good. In this case, it helped that I was already in Lausanne and they live in Meiringen, which, from Lausanne, is quite nearby. I bought a (rather expensive*) train ticket from a Swiss Rail agent who was regretful that I didn't qualify for any discounts, but was otherwise positively bubbling over with happiness. While I have had no unpleasant experiences with Swiss Rail employees, they are not usually quite so cheerful, so I inquired. She told me that she had just gotten her exam results for her tourism degree and she'd passed, so we had a small festival of congratulations and smiling at guichet #7 and it took the sting out of the ticket price. I was all set to see my cousins the next day.
*Why something in Switzerland being expensive should come as a surprise to me, I couldn't tell you. Just the day before, I had had an extended conversation with a saleswoman at the pharmacy about the relative merits of having aluminum in deodorant. Ultimately, we agreed that it wasn't all that good for your health. Then she revealed that the aluminum-free deodorant was the equivalent of $20. If I suddenly drop dead, but still smell okay, you can assume it was the work of the aluminum in the $6 deodorant I bought instead.
I like trains. I particularly like trains in Switzerland because they have a highly reliable schedule, sure, but mostly because:
I mean, seriously? This is a fairly arbitrary photograph. You'll just have to trust me that things like this are just casually strewn about outside train windows all over Switzerland. I often tell people that Switzerland looks to me as though it were comprised entirely of illustrations from a children's book of fairy tales. It is truly breathtakingly beautiful.
Nevertheless, being a enthusiastic train passenger does not make me some kind of expert. Though the total journey was just an hour and a half, I had to take three different trains to get to Meiringen. Many train tickets have no assigned seats; you just do what you will. On the first train--the longest leg of the journey--I got in the very last car, as it was the least crowded. I did see a reserved sign over some seats, so, sensibly, I didn't sit in them. For about an hour, it was perfect. I sat in a nearly empty car next to a window watching the lake and vineyards and villages slip by (beautiful, beautiful, beautiful). Then, about twenty minutes from the station of my first transfer, the train stopped and my car flooded with about forty teenagers. Excited teenagers with significant luggage and loud American hip-hop. You know what's curious about Switzerland? One minute you are quite happily speaking French to all and sundry and the next, imperious teenage boys are speaking to you sternly and at length in German. It is not altogether pleasant. I came to understand that the reservation sign was not for the seats, but for the car. It is indicated on the sign that this car will be occupied by a school group from X station to Y station. Oh.
Still, I do not object to teenagers as a general concept, there were plenty of seats to spare, and, while I might have been in the way had I crashed their party for their entire journey, I was disembarking in just a few minutes, so I saw no reason to move. I endeavored to explain this to the girl sitting beside me and she seemed slightly alarmed that A) I was there and B) was speaking to her, but on the whole she seemed to think it was fine. I sat there smiling in my little corner while they all sang along with the English chorus of some song I'd never heard and felt quite inoffensive. Two boys did not agree. There was a great deal of glaring, which I ignored and some more angry German, which I also ignored. That was when they started wadding up bits of paper and throwing them at my head. Wha? Am I an adult? An adult who works at a high school? And are children actually throwing things at me? I ignored that too, but my heart rate increased; I'll admit it.
It took me a while to realize that the ringleader boy had seated himself behind me and was speaking English directed at me, while not being exactly addressed to me. He was speaking in a weird low voice with exaggerated slowness. I'll imitate it for you sometime. "Ma-dum" he said, pronouncing "madam" in the British manner, rather than the French. "Maaa-duumm. Come on. Pleeease move now, maadummm. Come on, maduumm. Come on. Pleeeeeassseee. Please go away now. Go to another seat now, maduummm." This went on and on and on. It is very strange to be harassed by an unknown teen who is calling you "madam." It was perhaps the most polite incivility I have ever experienced. Finally, I turned around and said, "Look. There are plenty of seats. I'm not in your way. And I'm getting off at Bern in ten minutes. Calm down. There's no problem." To which he said, "There is a problem. There is a big problem. It is reserved." So I punched him in his smug little show-off face. No, I didn't. But I wanted to. Most of all, I wanted one of the damn chaperones to come rescue me, but they didn't. I endured further paper balls and "maduming" until, praise God, we pulled into Bern.
And you know what happened then? ALL of us disembarked. I had assumed they were going to be in that train car for hours to come. My adversary said "bon voyage" as he passed. The little fu....Sorry. The chaperones were not far behind him and I told them how terribly charmant that boy was. I also apologized to them because I still didn't actually know the rules of reserved cars. Maybe I really was obliged to move. They waved away my apologies. The woman said, "I can only say I am very, very sorry." I told them I work at a high school and it was fine. They laughed. "There's always one," I said. She looked at me dolefully. "Oh. There's more than one." "In that case," I said, "I'm very sorry." "Thank you," she said. And then went off to have a truly terrible time for several days.
When I recounted this story to my cousin she told me that no one is obliged to move for these groups, if they have enough room. "It's not a requirement; it's more like a warning."
I finished the journey unmolested and arrived in the very small town of Meiringen, to find my cousin waiting for me on the platform with her groceries. It was moving in a way I can't quite articulate to see a member of my family in such a far-off place in such a dramatic landscape. We walked about a block to their flat where the Swiss Alps are framed in each window. This was the view from mine:
It looks like this everywhere. Everywhere. The building in the background to the left of the tree is the elegant Hotel du Suavage where Sherlock Holmes stayed before his fatal scuffle with Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls in 1891. Where is Reichenbach Falls, you ask? Why, it's that little white line in the mountains. Toward the right, about three quarters of the way up the picture.
There is a little Sherlock Holmes museum in that church. Kath tells me that people come on little Sherlock pilgrimages, clad in period costume. Sadly, there weren't any there that day.
What? Still no? How about now?
We had a drink at a restaurant and the Alps were nearby. Then we had dinner at home and the Alps were nearby. They were pretty much always right there. After dinner,we went to a graceful wooden church at the very foot of the mountain for a concert. Several very charming and enthusiastic musicians said many things in German and then played some Schubert very beautifully. When we walked home (about two blocks), it turned out the village fest was in full swing right outside the flat.
In addition to the alpine horns, the fest was comprised of some restaurants serving beer outside and some other musical groups. It was quite chilly out, so we didn't stick around, but I could hear plenty of accordion from the living room. Sadly, there wasn't any yodeling, which I was given to understand was quite a surprise, as pretty much every self-respecting Swiss fest has some yodeling. A concert and a fest all in one day was pretty major for Meiringen, so I'm glad I was able to make it that day.
On my way back to Lausanne, I spent a few hours in Interlaken, which, for the record, is also not ugly. Additionally, I had some shockingly delicious ice cream at some snack bar near the train station. Bi-Rite Creamery? You've got nothing on Interlaken Snack Bar. I'm not kidding.
On the train back, I was in the last car. There was a reserved sign. I read it very carefully and got the hell out of there when we reached the appointed "reserved from X" station. A few stops later, from my new seat, I saw the group disembark. It was comprised entirely of girls and they were chaperoned by two nuns in full ankle-length habits.
I think I would have been safe.