Friday, February 22, 2008

Weekend - Silence

Saturday morning we woke up early again, made it out of the house, through the snow, got on the 6:47am bus to catch the 7:10am train to Zurich, where I deposited my friends at the airport for their flight back to the US. It was a bit of a sad goodbye, we had such a fantastic time together.

I have never been to Switzerland with friends before and it was such an amazing experience to be able to share a place so close to my heart with people so special to me. Not to mention being able to explore and experience so many new things.

So I made my way back to Luzern, got back into my pj's and stayed like that the rest of the weekend. Philipp and his family had gone off to Austria, so I had the house to myself. Recovery, mental and physical, was sorely needed. My brain was pretty close to overload after a week of translating back and forth between English and Swiss German. My body was close to shattered after an intensive schedule, a bad cold and completely and totally losing my voice. (Which of course was commented on as the ideal state for a woman to be in - unable to speak - ha ha ha.)

Anyway so I lounged on the sofa, drinking lots of tea, catching up on another season of 24 and resting up for two more days of Fasnacht.

***So I am weeks behind on the blog but I'm working hard on catching up, let's all pretend I'm posting as things happened!***

Bern, Switzerland

Friday morning, a little worse for the wear, we got on a train again and went to Bern, the capital of Switzerland. All these years that I have visited Switzerland and I have never been to the capital! So on the train we were, tired and probably a little hungover, we traveled about an hour and were in Bern.

We strolled this beautiful medieval city that was founded in 1191, we walked down cobblestone streets, through archways, past the shopping arcade (the longest covered shopping promenade in all of Europe), admiring churches, towers and fountains along the way.

We eventually made our way to see the famous bears of Bern. I think we were all a little torn between how amazing it was to see these animals but also how awful it was to see them stuck in this pit with not a whole lot of room to live. I would hate to be trapped like that. The bears have been a fixture in Bern since 1441 and the bear pit is actually part of the Bernese zoo.

After seeing the bears, we stopped for a beer and some lunch at a local brewery, did a little shopping and made our way back to Luzern. Back home we were treated to another amazing and typical Swiss meal, Züri gschnätzlets or Zurich Veal. It is small pieces of veal cooked in a cream sauce served with Rosti (Swiss hash browns) and its deeeelicious! So after dinner Elisa, Rob and Kiki packed their bags as they were heading back to the US in the morning.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Fasnacht, Schmutziger Donnerstag - "Dirty Thursday"

Wow, so I don't even know where to begin on this subject. Fasnacht (sort of a Mardi Gras carnival) is a tradition over 500 years old and is celebrated in parts of Germany and Switzerland. Luzern is said to have the best Fasnacht in Switzerland and although I have not seen the celebrations in Basel or Bern, I definitely believe it. At 4:30am the four Americans got in the car with my cousin Philipp and his son Cedric, who were in costume as an old man and a cowboy, respectively.

Due to traffic, the four of us had to jump out of the car and literally jog across to the other part of town, past the water bridge, to the Schwanenplatz, where we were meeting up with my aunt Helena and her friend Gertrud. We stood lakeside with thousands of others to watch the Fritschi father and his wife arrive on a boat. The Fritschi father has a long history, from what I have been able to find out, it appears that Brother Fritschi was a member of the Safran Guild which was a merchants association with a reputation for attracting daredevils and warmongers, now the Guild is a bit more "civilized" and part of what they do is uphold the customs of Fritschi and Fasnacht. In any event, this year Fritschi was kidnapped by the town of Basel but the party still continued. Fritschi's wife was on this boat and at 5am everything started. Fireworks went off on the boat and Fritschi's wife and her escorts came ashore and made their way to the square in front of the town hall. It was a sight to see, young and old stood in costume waiting for another explosion of confetti and to be pelted by oranges and cookies. This is called the "orange battle" (which I accidently translated to my friends as the orange massacre - hey it sounds more fun like that anyway!).

The basic gist of Fasnacht is to celebrate and eat before 40 days of Lenten fasting, however it has animistic roots as well - the goal is to look scary and make a hell of a lot of noise to scare the winter demons away and bring spring.

Each day is sponsored by a different guild and Thursday is always sponsored by the Safran Guild. So after the big celebration in the square, we were invited to the Safran guild breakfast in the city hall, a very exclusive, ultra VIP event that most Swiss have never had the opportunity to experience. We had a lovely breakfast, watched some yodelers, some carnival bands, some old men dressed as women, and an impromptu conga line through the hall. It was surreal.

After breakfast we headed back home for a nap as we were going to need all the rest we could get to get through the rest of the day. In the afternoon we headed back down to town to watch the parade of bands and floats, but first we had an interview to give to a Swiss radio station. Radka had asked me earlier if we would be up for an interview as the station where she works, DRS Radio, were totally interested in these 4 Americans who came to Switzerland to experience Fasnacht. Under normal circumstances I think I would have been too embarrassed to do this but, not giving my friends an option - I said ok, I mean this was a once in a lifetime experience! So much to our mortification, Kiki, Rob, Elisa and I were interviewed by Dario from DRS Radio. My friends in English and me in Swiss-German - it was priceless. After our 15 minutes of fame we watched some more of the parade, which was fantastic. Absolutely stunning costumes and amazing music. I also happened to get doused in baby powder by some grown men dressed as infants (sometimes that's not so far from the actual truth - ha ha ha).

After a while we were pretty cold and went to my aunt Amay's home for tea and pastries. In Switzerland they make special pastries just for Fasnacht (something like an elephant ear - fried dough and powdered sugar), delicious! We listened to our interview come on the radio, listened to some bands playing in the square below and headed back home. After eating AGAIN, we get into our costumes, Rob as Sammy Davis Jr, Elisa and Kiki in traditional Fasnacht dresses and me as an old man, complete with mask and one of my grandfather's old 3 piece suits. So we met up with my cousin Alex (dressed as a Swiss guard) and his friend Patrick (dressed as some sort of alp wanderer complete with lederhosen and all). We traipsed all over town, drinking holdrio (rosehip tea and schnapps) and beer, eating all the food Alex's au pair brought us (basically anything we wanted). We danced to amazing bands, ate more food, drank more holdrio and had a fantastic time. Our night ended with a performance by the Vikinger, they are a carnival band made up of professional musicians, replete with singers, rappers, guitar, bass, drums, horns and they were totally AMAZING. After their show, we ate again and finally called it a night at 3:30am.

Now came the hard part - we had to walk home, uphill. It was almost as bad as the forced mountain marches I had to do with my grandmother - minus the yodeling. At 4am as Radka was heading to work, we stumbled into the house and collapsed into bed. I think it was one of the most memorable and amazing days of my life.

Notes on the pictures.
1- The Fritschi House in Luzern's old town
2- 5am at the Fritschi Fountain
3- The bad guys from Basel who stole Fritschi
4- The babies
5- Ready to go and in costume

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Alpine Adventures - Part 2

Tuesday we woke up to spectacular weather once again. I made us some bologna and cheese sandwiches (not your Oscar Mayer bologna, I assure you) and we got on the train again to go to Engleberg. Back in Miami when we were looking through our travel books, we saw that one could actually build an igloo and overnight in it. Somehow Elisa and I thought this was an especially fabulous idea. I think we underestimated the difficulty of this exercise.

Nonetheless, we met with our guide Nicole, scouted out our location and learned the fine art of digging snow trenches, cutting snow blocks with saws and setting the snow blocks together. Unfortunately our snow was too dry to stick properly and our igloo kept collapsing. Quite frustrating. Fortunately the igloo that someone built on Sunday was still standing and was solid so we were able to stay in that igloo overnight. I regret to advise that I chickened out and headed for the hotel, I had a really bad cold and no great desire to catch pneumonia, besides it was awfully handy for us to have a place where we could use a bathroom.

So after a whole lot of hard work we headed to the igloo village bar and hotel, an actual hotel made entirely out of snow and ice - very cool but really really cold inside. We had an apero of mulled wine, devoured the peanut chips and pretzels and had a delicious fondue dinner. After dinner the four of us, head lanterns on, trekked up the hill (actually up a ski run) to my hotel where we were able to thaw out a little bit. We had some hot chocolate and my friends headed off to their igloo for the night. I have to confess I was a bit nervous for them and was a bit afraid they would freeze but the next morning the troopers hiked up the hill intact.

The next morning the weather turned and after hiking through the snow and monster snowflakes to a chalet for breakfast, we headed back down to Luzern. The afternoon consisted of a massive acquisition of cheese and chocolate at the grocery store and another delicious dinner with Philipp and Radka, after which it was time for bed as we had to be down in the city at 4:45am the next day for our next adventure.

Alpine Adventures - Part 1

Monday our program really began. Our initial plan was to go to Bern, the capital city of Switzerland, or up into the mountains, specifically the the Jungfrau if weather was permitting. Well the weather forcast called for sensational weather, so Monday morning we got on the first of many trains and headed to Jungfraujoch. It has been a really long time since I have been to Switzerland in the winter and a really really long time since I have been here on actual vacation.

We passed one charming village after another on our way to the Jungfrau. Our first stop was Interlaken, which was straight out of a postcard. Swiss chalets, bright blue skies, massive bright white mountains in the background and of course, lots and lots of skiers. Next we boarded a panorama train to the next stop up in the Bernese Alps. The view was beyond description, our train climbed steeper and steeper around turns and bends with the Alps surrounding us. We switched trains again and got on the last train that would take us up to Jungfraujoch, the highest train station in Europe. The train carried us on tracks that were first laid in 1896, up the mountains and into a tunnel that is actually in the Eiger north face. I could not help but be totally amazed by this feat of engineering and think about all those who have perished at the hands of the Eiger. This is a SERIOUS mountain.

We finally made it to our last stop, 11,387ft above sea level. Not a place to be running up and down stairs, a simple flight of stairs will literally take your breath away and that is before you take the view into account. Other members of my family have been up to Jungfraujoch but unfortunately they were not as lucky as we were with the weather. The views were jawdropping - the Eiger, the Jungfrau, the Monch, the Aletsch Glacier - it was more vivid than any dream or reality could ever seem to be. We took in the sights, played in the ice palace that is in the mountain, I tried to reenact a famous Anton Ono speed skating scene and successfully managed to fall on my ass, twice! Somewhat familiar to someone else I know who shall remain anonymous. Ha ha.

After taking in as much as we possibly could, we got back on the train (totally exhausted as high altitudes can take a toll on you) and headed back to Luzern, where we were treated to Raclette for dinner by Philipp and Radka. Raclette is a very typical Swiss winter dish. Essentially you have a mini grill on the table and you place slices of Raclette cheese into mini frying pans on the grill. You take the melted cheese and pour it over potatoes, mini pickles and cocktail onions. It is a delicious meal after a long day in the fresh mountain air.

As one can imagine, after a day like that and a meal like that we were ready to collapse into our beds, besides the next day we had another alpine adventure planned.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

To the Land of Heidi We Go!

While I was back in Miami, I checked the calendar one day and saw that Fasnacht, AKA Swiss Mardi Gras, was coming up pretty soon. After a quick search online for a ticket and a quick chat with my mother, I very impulsively decided to go. For about as long as I can remember, my family in Switzerland have been urging me to come to Fasnacht but I have never been able to go due to obligations with either school or work. This time I had no excuse, I found a cheap ticket and I decided to go.

The day after I booked my ticket, I went to dinner with my friends Kiki and Rob. We had talked about going to Switzerland over the years but never really put anything together. So when they heard I was going they wanted to go too. After a bit of convincing, calender checking and coordinating, Kiki, Rob and Elisa (Kiki's cousin) booked their tickets on the same flight as me.

We bought some travel books, some train passes and pretty much mapped out the week we would spend together in Switzerland. It was a rough schedule and my cousins in Switzerland called me quite a slave driver of a tour guide; well, if you only have a week you better make the most of it as far as I'm concerned.

Anyway, so we land in Zurich at 7am Sunday morning, two of us were able to sleep on the flight and two of us were not. But hey, we are troopers and we were determined to push through. So my awesome cousin Alex, picked us up at the airport, gave us a driving tour through Lucerne (my family's hometown) and took us to my cousin Philipp's house (which is actually the home my mom grew up in). After making us coffee, Alex went back to his home and we hit the city. We walked to the old town and had a huge lunch of alpine macaroni. We do not recommend mixing jet lag with a massive pasta dish, we were lucky that nobody passed out at the table.

In classic tourist fashion we headed to Mount Pilatus for a quick look while we still could. Mount Pilatus is a notable mountain in the Lucerne area and a place I went often as a child. One of the most fascinating things is that the Swiss military actually has a small base at the top and according to the soldiers we talked to, they are there to make sure nobody comes along and steals the mountain. Ha ha.

After a long day we were welcomed back at home by my cousin and his family for a lovely dinner after which we finally made it to our beds!

Moving Right Along

Well after about a month in Miami, enjoying the holidays, spending time with friends and family, and the constant challenge of trying to improve my computer's efficiency, it was time to head back to Brooklyn. Rather than driving up, I left my car in Miami and flew back since I was about to embark on another trip out of the country.

After about three and a half months in balmy sub tropical weather I was definitely not ready for the harsh and bitter cold of New York. However I survived, sorted through all my mail, saw some friends and after three days in NY, I headed back to the airport for a flight to Switzerland.