Apparently I’ve been living in the world of a general lack of updates and inherent laziness, so this is the first time I’ve felt the compulsion to blog since I’ve been back from Italy. About a week after getting back from Europe, the father figure saw fit to fly my sister and I over to Switzerland to visit him for a portion of our winter break. I suppose I should explain why; my parents are divorced. Back when my sister and I could not sign for anything, much less drive ourselves anywhere, my parents “agreed” to a system of visitation that had my mother maintain custody and, every other weekend, Allie and I would visit him. During the winter break, we would spend the first half with him and the second half with my mother. This was a tolerable system, despite difficulties in relationships that I won’t delve into here, until this last year. Dad began to act as a consultant for one of the companies that his company acquired, and to do so he had to visit Switzerland for two, three months at a time. Most recently, however, his work has required him to move to the land of chocolate and cheese and live there for an undisclosed amount of time. This meant that, if we were to see him even once during the year, he would have to fly us out. I suppose, then, the easiest time for that to happen, when my sister and I don’t really have anything going on, would be during the winter break. And so this trip was justified in his mind.
We arrived in Geneva to snow. Being from Texas, it’s always a shock to the system to see a land covered in the fluffy white stuff, but the overbearing presence of jetlag prevented us from enjoying it; it was a struggle just to keep my eyes open and my body moving. We decided, in our infinite wisdom, that after two cups of coffee we were awake enough to take a short trip up to Gruyères for castles, cheeses, and tiny potatoes. Again, I have to reference our lack of experience with the snow, as my sister and I made a point to stop and do any one of the following on our way up into the town’s walls: make snowballs, throw aforementioned snowballs, fall down, make snow angels, make rather embarrassing snowmen, repeatedly stomp in deep snow, fall down again, generally make fools of ourselves in front of the locals. By the time we reached the top of the hill, the resting place of Château de Gruyères, we were nearly too tired to take pictures. Nearly.
The Chateau was a fairly formal castle, unlike those found in other towns (I’m looking at you, Dublin), and we were treated to an awkward tourist video that explained the history of the castle to the tune of an incredibly excitable (possibly aroused) old friar. I would like to point out that it has taken all of my willpower to not use the phrase “hot-to-trot” just now. After that embarrassing bit, we did the short walkthrough of the grounds, keeping to the interior as best as we could to prevent our heat-conditioned bodies from collapsing in the cold. It is interesting to see these castles that are central to Europe, as they all undergo such dramatic changes in both technology and purpose over the course of their lifetimes. In Switzerland (and Germany, from what I remember), the castles were in constant contention between owners of different nationalities, particularly the Germans and the French. In the late 1300’s and early 1400’s, castles served primarily as fortifications and were simple, strong structures built on the high ground of regions. In the late 1400’s, everyone began converting the practical fortifications into either monasteries or palaces, fancy French vacation homes in the mountains. It is a bit disappointing, to say the least; such monolithic testaments to strength and power, even French, are imposing and wonderful in their own right.
We finished up in the castle and made our way back down the hill. Allie and I stopped in to an art exhibition, one that my father recommended; it was the artist responsible for the development of the sets and creatures in the movie Alien. Eventually, I will have seen enough absolute garbage art exhibitions that I will just ignore them as a possibility for visitation. I’m not sure what possessed this artist to draw the things that he drew, but I saw all the work, all 45-minutes worth of tour. Sure, the movie renderings and concept sketches were interesting, but his alternative work? If you have ever looked at the concept sketches for the videogame Doom you will have a vague idea of what we were looking at. Think futuristic-devil-meets-S&M-erotica and then slam your head in your bedroom door, it’s about the same.
We then proceeded to one of the local restaurants to try fondue, something that Gruyères was particularly famous for. We were seated next to a panoramic window that offered a beautiful view of the mountains (though in all honesty, there’s not a place in Switzerland where you can’t see the mountains) and were handed four bowls skewered with tiny forks: one each for pickles, potatoes, bread, and pearl onions. In hindsight, how I originally imagined this going down was naïve, believing it to be similar to eating queso here in Texas. No, it is a bowl filled with boiling Swiss cheese. For those readers who are still under the impression that this is a creamy, delicious snack, let me quell those happy thoughts. The cheese itself is not seasoned or flavored and, when melted, the Swiss gives off a strange aroma and becomes thick and grainy; it’s like dipping your potatoes in cheesy snot. Yep, cheesy snot; I ate a lot of it, more than I am comfortable admitting, actually. Filled with Swiss mucus, we headed back to the apartment in Neuchâtel and I crashed hard.
Gstaad at night
Our second day was the beginning of our ski trip. We purchased wintry clothes, a cheap four-wheel-drive Skoda rental, and made our way over to Gstaad. This little German town was my favorite place in the land of cheese and chocolate, primarily because it was German. Nestled at the base of the mountains, the little tourist town was our base of operations for the next two days. Our first day had us, snowboard boots and all, waddle over to this bunny slope at the base of one of the mountains. I had never had any sort of experience snowboarding (or skiing, sledding, tobogganing, falling down the mountain, or even running through deep snow before the day prior to this) so this was uncharted territory in the most awkward sea of universal-lack-of-coordination I have ever encountered. I found myself on my hands and knees bunny-hopping my way out of the powdery stuff more times than I would care to remember. I decided, about fifteen minutes in, that I was going to try and ride Goofy stance (right foot in front) and proceeded to learn everything like that. I encountered a problem, however, when I tried to turn left; wasn’t going to happen. No matter how I tried, I either went straight or fell on my back.
It's just you and me, Alps.
At the end of the day, though, I decided that I had a good enough grasp on the basics that I would try one of the runs that went from about halfway up the mountain down to the base the next day. My sister, citing issues with her knee, decided not to participate in the second day’s activities. The father and I purchased our lift tickets and stepped into the gondolas. At the top, feet in bindings, I realized that there wasn’t any other way than to go down the mountain. One deep breath and away I went, awkwardly shifting my weight in a wholly unnatural attempt to corner and (for the love of God!) not end up in the deep powder on the fringe of the run. We meandered our way down the slope, being sure to avoid the classes taking place at various points. I would like to pause the story for a minute and complain about children. As it turns out, Swiss children are required to take a 10-day ski course while in elementary school. This means that not only do they get to ski for free (all of the trips are publically funded by the schools) but by the time they are my age they are amazing. I mean, relatively speaking, the elementary school children were amazing, as most of them flew past me while I sat on my rear in the middle of the run after not being able to turn left. There were several camps of these “beginners” dotting the slope on our way down but the real trouble came at the end. Our instructor described it on the first day as “about ten meters of steep drop into the lift area” and he wasn’t kidding. As you approached the end of the run, the slope went from ~15 degrees to 45 degrees. The issue with this was that there were classes at both the top of this drop and at the bottom. To the inexperienced snowboarder, such as myself, the thought of possibly losing control and plowing into a crowd of ten-year-olds wasn’t particularly appealing. Neither were the thoughts of bodily harm or Swiss prisons.
I shuffled down the slope boardside, being as careful as possible not to hit the kids at the bottom, as the father walked his skis down the slope. Back on the lift and up the mountain we go.
I began to get the hang of riding switch, that is, with the tail-end of the board forward. It may not have lent itself well to correct technique, but damn it, I was able to turn right and left. It was going fairly smoothly; I had my headphones in, I wasn’t plowing into my fellow mountain-goers, and I hadn’t sustained any injuries that required a feeding tube and a body cast. On one of my later runs, however, I did manage to make an epic fool of myself. I was making my way down the slope and decided that it was time for me to work on cornering with the correct stance. I had developed a unique proficiency at finding the edge of the board (most of the time the wrong one) and falling one way or the other. Usually I was able to just hop back up and continue about my business. Unfortunately, as my bravado had coaxed me into trying something I should have mastered before getting up the mountain, I managed to clip an edge at a significant speed. Soon I was airborne. I watched my bindings sail over my head, then the gound take the place of the sky, then clouds and bindings again, and then impact. My momentum carried me nearly a hundred and fifty feet down the mountain, the entire time my eyes fixated on the sky and the reel of pine trees that sped by me. Eventually I managed to roll to a stop, an annoyed look on my face and a load of snow in my breeches.
That snow followed me all the way down the mountain. Soggy.
A few runs later and I had had it; I was exhausted and in need of a warm beverage. We made our way back to the apartment in Neuchantel and partook in copious amounts of both coffee and Lost. The following morning was the very definition of suffering. Every muscle in my body screamed for painkillers and sleep, reminding me that I am not athletic and that falling down a mountain has consequences other than a snowball in the trousers. However, we really only had a single day of travel left and we still had yet to experience a Swiss Christmas Market… so off to Montreux we went. A nifty series of shops, the Christmas market housed all manner of vendors: keychains, purses, scarves, clocks, ornaments, coffee, chocolate, books, some Russian knick knacks, et cetera ad nauseum. The sister bought a purse and I snapped pictures of wares and people. One man in particular (I couldn’t decide whether or not he was a street performer) was making a spectacle of himself by feeding the gulls along the shoreline. Not sure what his intentions were, but I can guarantee you that he went home smelling worse than when he left.
He played right into their trap.
The castle in Montreux, Château de Chillon, was our last tourist attraction for the trip. Although it appears to be a proper castle, it is built in a location that can only act as a testament to the fact that really, it was a lake house. Beautiful on its own, the castle frames views of the Swiss Alps and catches the sunlight as it reflects off of the lake, adding to its splendor. Unfortunately, it was a particularly nasty day filled with clouds and fog, so there were no views of the mountains and no sunlight for the lake. Sure, the history is interesting and all, but I would like to take some sweet pictures too; too much to ask for, apparently.
Not pictured: gorgeous scenery
That ended my adventures abroad for the year 2010. An upgrade to business-class on the long flight back to the states made for a nice parting gift while heading out of Geneva. Allie and I were unsure as to how to handle ourselves; it was the first time we had ever been out of coach. Reclining seats (read: bed), television screens, and real food made the ride back quite enjoyable. For now, I shall leave you with another picture of the gulls. Who knows when I’ll post again, so stay tuned!
Giving orders to the troops