Stories of life
We spent just over a week in Switzerland recently. It’s a lovely country, and we had a great time. Every place we go has its oddities, and so does Helvetica*.
#1 Water travails
The first time we bought water, it jolted us. It is expensive! 4.50 CHF for a bottle. This is for the basic variety. If you’re rich, there’s an entire range whose top end we didn’t dare find. (It’s 0.24 CHF for a litre water bottle in India, where we live, so you can imagine the repeated pain.) To add insult, beer only costs 2.50 CHF.
Now, having paid 4.50 CHF, one would expect the water to taste like nectar. Au contraire, we detested the taste. The bottles proudly proclaim it’s mountain or mineral water and such. But it seemed like a spin on the reality that water may be like that all over Switzerland, a suspicion strengthened by seeing glacial rivers milky with fine sand and silt.
And one more thing. We often spluttered over unexpected sparkling water. Why, oh why, do they love sparkling water? It does nothing to quench our thirst and is nasty. When and where did this abomination begin? I know it’s not just a Swiss thing but a widespread malady. I must find out.
#2 Pillow trouble
It was a nice hotel on our first night, and we were tired from travelling from India to Zurich to Luzern. We washed up and hit the bed….literally! At least our skulls did, for the pillows were so soft it was like there weren’t any. Even two of them. They look deceptively plump, but your head will make them paper thin just like that. At the next hotel, it was the same, which is when it was declared a quirk. We put reservations aside and asked for firmer pillows, which raised our heads a few millimetres higher. In the last hotel, they’d paired cushions with the pillows. You guessed it. The cushions became our pillows. Come on, Swiss hoteliers, cloudlike pillows are not exactly the universal epitome of luxury.
#3 Sidewalk dance
The people walk on the right side on sidewalks (pavements), probably because they drive on the right side. We are used to staying to our left and felt we were walking against the tide and dodging deftly until we realised this and switched. Not that it’s a rule or something, but there’s definitely a tendency to walk right.
#4 Desi music at strategic locations
We were walking up the path at the top of Harder Kulm when I heard the faint snatch of a familiar tune. It was a song from an old Bollywood movie— Kabhi Kabhie. It surprised me for a second before I went, ‘Aha, of course, they’ll play desi songs (‘desi’ is what we call anything typically Indian and comes from ‘desh’, i.e., country or land). The movie probably had scenes set in Switzerland; the Swiss appreciate the direct and indirect business and want to be welcoming to Indians.’ We heard a couple more such Indian film muzak piece the funicular station as we waited to go down. But I must admit, even cynical old me felt a bit at home.
#5 Not all trains are the same
When we think of Switzerland, we think of a medium-sized modern country with a penchant for standards and consistency. So we expected trains to be the same all over. Not a big quirk, but they aren’t. There are different seats, colours and designs of trains in each area. All I could think of was that they must be upgrading them regularly, or every region is proud of its design and wants to be subtly unique.
#6 Cleanliness innovations
We used the men’s and women’s rooms at Interlaken train station and found the faucets had a sequence with a built-in soap dispenser. So first it wets your hands, dispenses fine sudsy soap, then washes your hands! No escaping the soap. It’s not like we aren’t familiar with toiletry mod cons, but this was extreme cleanliness automation innovation.
#7 *What’s with the CHF?
Why is the Swiss currency called CHF? In my chronic curiosity, I looked it up. It’s the acronym for Confœderatio Helvetica Franc. Confederation of Helvetica is the old Latin name of the country. It reminded me of the Swiss stamps of my boyhood philately (a dead hobby, sadly). They’ve retained this officially as the country is still a federation of 26 cantons with four official languages — French, German, Italian, and Romansh. Helvetica, or sometimes Helvetia, is derived from the name of the Helvetii, a Gaulish tribe living on the Swiss plateau in the Roman era. There’s my trivia contribution to you.
#8 Dangerous fondue
The Swiss make great cheese, as we all know. But then they invented the famous fondue, Switzerland’s national dish, no less. Check this link for more. Aw, come on, mounds of pure starch (bread) dunked in oodles of pure fat (cheese), you’ve got to be kidding me. In a scenic restaurant, as we watched families eating fondue all around us (can’t imagine a single person at it), all we could picture was the bad cholesterol, jamming arteries, immediate heart attack, and instant death. Variations with potatoes or chocolate are aplenty. It’s one of those proverbial delicious-looking sirens calling you to your doom. Be warned.
#9 Funny wood carvings
We often saw carved and colourfully painted wooden figurines of gnomes, cows, alphorn players, mountaineers, etc. What was amusing was their wackiness and irreverence, which seems a side of the Swiss we weren’t lucky enough to personally experience as tourists. But good on them to take both Swiss precision and fun seriously.
#10 Ridiculous beauty
Sure Switzerland is beautiful. But come on, it gets boring after a while. After four days, we felt like world-weary travellers who couldn’t care less to look out the window or take yet another picture-postcard snap. We’d seen it all and done our share of oohing and aahing. We lolled around and looked on in fond pity at those come to heaven newly. Okay, I admit this is not a quirk per se, but it sure felt different in its unfailing prettiness, at least in the places we visited. Maybe we should have gone looking for some grungy bits of paradise to refresh the palate.
If you haven’t been, please go. It’s like Japan, a place to enjoy as a visitor even if not one to migrate to.
Auf wiedersehen, au revoir, arrivederci, la revedere!
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