Our daughter’s long-awaited visit from the UK finally happened in early September. We spent two weeks together and it felt like the first true vacation since the pandemic began. It was also our first family holiday in Switzerland since moving here last year, which gave me plenty of material to observe from a new perspective.
During that time, we went from our German-speaking side of the country back to the French before moving on to the Italian part. Just as this old girl was getting her brain retrained NOT to speak French in every public situation, we were navigating between all three languages plus English for the British boyfriend. But that was only one of the (admittedly enjoyable) challenges.
The Simplon car shuttle was my first experience of travelling by car on a train. A bit scary for a claustrophobic who doesn’t trust technology but a good way to cut short the long, twisty drive from French-speaking Valais to Italian-speaking Ticino.
There are two ways to do it: either you drive over the high-mountain pass or you put your car on the train and cut through. After much discussion (read: lively debate, ahem, I mean argument; that’s how we do things in this family), we decided to take the train on the way there and drive on the way back. Husband, the designated driver, will always prefer a mountain-top view. Nervous Nelly here is afraid heights and gets car sick from too many turns. So why do you live in a mountainous country, you ask? Go figure.
On a side note, the experience reminded me of a story I used to read to my daughter when she was little: We’re going on a bear hunt. It’s a wonderful tale about a family that goes through a bunch of stuff on an imaginary bear hunt. Every time the family runs into an obstacle, there’s a recurring theme: We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it. Oh, no, we’ve got to go through it!
It is a perfect metaphor for so much of life, even the good bits.
So, we managed to agree and drive ourselves to the place where you load your car onto the train in Brig. We had calculated the timing fairly well so were first in line and able to grab a coffee and do a WC run while waiting for the train. Generally they leave every hour or two in the busy periods. When the whistle blew we followed the line of cars onto the train, positioned it just behind the car in front and cut the engine. Then the fun began.
I had somehow not realized we would be in the dark during the journey. Also, I read all the emergency instructions in the brochure and tried not to think of what would happen if we got stuck. And there was a fire. Or an earthquake. Truly, having an imagination is a curse.
To nobody’s surprise but my own, twenty minutes later we emerged safely on the other side of the mountain. Then began an hour-and-a-half drive down far more narrow and twisty roads from the Domodossola, in Italy, that would take us to our holiday rental in Locarno.
When I saw the receipt from the car shuttle train I smiled. I’ve posted before about the use of funny words in French.
But somehow I’d never realized how they say ‘good trip’ in German.
More about our holiday later. Until then, good farts to all!
It has been a long, wet, unseasonably cool summer. We had the odd nice day here and there but there’s no denying that this was the summer that wasn’t. Yet here we are at the end of it and it feels like a bit of a rebirth is going on.
The clouds have finally cleared and the wild weather that wreaked havoc around here this summer ‘seems’ (I’m couching that one in every disclaimer possible) to be settling into something more stable.
It has been exactly one year since we arrived here in Central Switzerland and finally, like the weather, I am feeling settled too.
On my terrace, the lavender is making a bit of a comeback, like many of the plants that were so battered by the summer storms. The fields are all around us are beautifully green and groomed. I can hear the tinkle of sheep bells just above us and am looking forward to seeing our nosy neighbours again soon.
The swallows have returned and provide endless entertainment as they swoop around.
Our family is enjoying a bit of a renaissance, too. Today, we will be reunited with our daughter for the first time in more than a year. The vegan vet is flying here from the UK where she has been hard at work over the past year since graduating. And in a week’s time we will all meet at my son’s place on the other side of the ‘Rostigraben’, the cultural divide between German- and French-speaking Switzerland, along with my French father-in-law.
How many missed occasions will we be celebrating? Various birthdays, Christmas and the new year, unnamed holidays cancelled as flights shut down between the UK and Europe over the past year. Finally, we are all double-jabbed and ready to roll! There will be bubbles and a very nice cake, then a bit of a holiday here in Switzerland.
For now, I will be kicking back and enjoying the remains of summer as we begin our second year here. Maybe even get my paddle board out again. Fingers crossed we will sail into a lovely Indian summer.
People live in different places but they are usually from somewhere. A hometown or a country or a continent. Recently, on holiday in Germany, I realized that I’m not sure how to answer it anymore. Because here’s the funny thing: where you’re from changes.
And sometimes there is no short answer.
I always used to say I was from Toronto. I was born there and for most of my life considered myself to be ‘from’ that city. It was mostly where I grew up, came of age, fell in and out of love.
For a brief while, I was less sure about where I was from. Our family moved from Ontario to Minnesota when I was a young teen. To American Midwesterners, it seemed I had a British accent. And what was so funny about the way I said ‘about’? To them it sounded like ‘aboot’. When we moved back to Toronto five years later, I was reproached by my teachers for using words and expressions that sounded ‘American’.
Now I feel a bit too disconnected from life in North America to say I’m ‘from’ there anymore.
When I first met my husband and got married in France, the answer was a no-brainer: I was from English-speaking Canada. Otherwise, it begged the question: Vous êtes Canadienne? But you must speak French! And where’s that Céline Dion accent? I became used to explaining that French is mostly spoken in Québec and a few pockets of other Canadian provinces. Yet the French people I met would shake their heads in wonder, secretly believing that I spoke more of their tongue than I admitted. I wasted no time in learning the language and proving them right.
Living in France, the question of where I was from rarely came up. The French only ask you where you’re from if they know you well enough to ask you personal questions. Because your personal life is, well, your business. And if they’re going to ask, they will use neutral language: Vous êtes originaire de quel pays? (What country are you originally from?)
In Switzerland, people don’t often ask where you’re from either, at least outside of Geneva. They just get on with the business of communicating with each other. The fact that Switzerland, like Canada, is a country home to people from many different places means that more often than not, more than one language is involved. Language isn’t much of a barrier here. You just work with whatever words you have until sufficient understanding is achieved to get things done.
It’s been awhile since anyone asked me where I’m from. Perhaps because, like most of the world, I haven’t traveled much in the past year and a half. And in the meantime I moved, changing home from one adopted country to another.
On holiday in Germany last month, the question came up several times. And now that I live in German-speaking Switzerland, I found myself stumbling to answer.
I finally landed on this: I’m from France but I live in Switzerland.
Which prompted: Ah, but you’re English speaking?
Yes. Originally from Canada but I lived in France for nearly 30 years.
People in northern Germany, especially the younger generation, seem to readily speak English as soon as they realize you don’t speak their language. They even apologize for their ‘poor’ English (which I rush to compliment while excusing my own lack of native lingo).
I also realized that I love it when people ask outright where I’m from. It doesn’t feel rude or resentful or prompted by anything but honest curiosity. It makes me feel more at home.
But it also makes me realize that I really don’t know the answer, which seems kind of sad. Not that it really matters. We are from wherever we are right now. At least for those of us fortunate enough to enjoy the privilege.
I have posted before about my love of Swiss trains. They are efficient, clean, on time. You can go almost anywhere in Switzerland by train, from quick connections between major cities to airports and mountain resorts. You can bring your bike, your luggage or your dog (for a price). All pretty well hassle-free.
Best of all, trains cross borders. I used to travel regularly from France to Switzerland and once took the tilting train all the way to Venice. Surely it was not unreasonable to imagine we would have a similar experience in Germany?
Wrong. We took the train several times on our recent trip to Northern Germany, and every single time the train was late. Even when it was on time they managed to lose time along the way and arrive late. Plus, the experience of the German train system was confusing, uncomfortable and generally less than pleasant.
I’m not complaining. I mean, we are just coming out of a pandemic here in Europe. Being able to travel again, even while wearing masks, is a privilege. Besides, Germany had just experienced some terrible floods in the west and while this did not directly impact our journey, the whole Deutsche Bahn network was affected.
It started with our first connection from Basel to Hamburg. An earlier train had been cancelled and therefore ours was packed to the hilt. This is where I made my first mistake. Assuming that because no one books seats on Swiss trains that this would be the case on German ones. Wrong again. Virtually all of the seats had been prebooked for various legs of the journey so we found ourselves scrambling, laden with luggage, from one car to another looking for seats.
Basically, booking a ticket on a train does not reserve you a seat. That is a separate process, one that is rarely used in Switzerland except for large groups. So we bounced around for a couple of hours until the controller finally found us two seats that were still free (for which we had to pay for a reservation — go figure!). Except they were only free until the next stop, when new travellers boarded and claimed their seats. So we moved again. It seems that the German system is a little wonky also when it comes to the reservation system, so even the controllers don’t know if seats are free or not.
We had plenty of time to joke about it. ‘Do Better’ was my husband’s suggestion when I asked what DB stood for (Deutsche Bahn). And we amused ourselves with finding different names for the train we took, an ICE (Inter City Express). Hence the title of this post.
I vowed not to fall victim to the musical chairs game again. So for our trip to Sylt on the North Sea, we also reserved seats. In first class for good measure. All good, right? Wrong.
It started out fine. We got to the Dammtor station in Hamburg on time for our scheduled departure. As in Switzerland, there is an information panel on the platform showing the train configuration, and our wagon was supposed to be on the end of the platform where we were waiting. Except when the train arrived it was the opposite end. So we lugged our bags to other end of a very long train to discover….chaos. We boarded the train but couldn’t find our seats. People were standing in the aisles looking confused. A harried controller was running around trying to help people who did not look happy.
As everyone was speaking German, I was at sea. Husband, who speaks the language reasonably well, also seemed confused. So as soon as I got a chance, I asked the controller if he could help us, apologizing and asking if he spoke English. He did. In fact, I think he was happy to help some lost-looking English speakers as the disgruntled German passengers were getting nasty. It turned out that one wagon of the train (ours) had broken down, so all of the people booked into that car were without seats. Thankfully he found us a free compartment in second class which we gratefully accepted.
On the return from Sylt, the train was far less full so the seats we had booked were sort of unnecessary. But the train lost time between stops, waiting for unexplained amounts of time. At one point, an announcement was made in which I understood a few words: kinder (children), spiel (play) and polizei (police). It seemed that a group of children were playing football on the track and we had to wait for the police to come and remove them.
Train travel is slow travel. We weren’t on a tight schedule, and the whole beauty of the train is being able to read, watch the scenery and relax. But German trains are old, for one thing, and not comfortable for long trips. Infrastructure needs updating. Electrical systems are lacking. For example, there was nowhere to plug in and charge our phones.
Our last journey from Hamburg to Basel was another story. We had booked the Night Jet, a special train with sleeper cars that travels between European cities overnight. First class to boot! There was even a car and compartment number on our tickets, so I was fairly confident we wouldn’t have to scramble.
Arriving on board, the controller scrutinized our reservation with an expression that did not bode well. The compartment we had booked through the Swiss website simply didn’t exist!
As the train left the station, we stood waiting for what seemed like an eternity while they tried to figure out where to put us. Finally we were led to our sleeping compartment. It was on the upper level, with access via narrow stairs that were highly impractical for navigating suitcases, and inside were two bunk beds under a sloping ceiling. The space was so small we could not both be standing up at the same time, or at least not without being intimate. The beds were made with pillows in the far corner, so that we would be sleeping in a sort of tunnel, our feet towards the window. Being claustrophobic, I immediately switched this around so my head was near the exit. Even husband, not normally worried about such things, insisted we keep the blinds up so we wouldn’t feel quite so closed in.
There was a small sink where were able to perform ablutions before going to bed. Several bottles of water had been provided, along with glasses and some unchilled frizzante. But the toilet was down stairs and down the hall, so I kept my liquids to a minimum.
Not long after we turned out the lights, husband was asleep. One of his gifts, aside from his sense of humour, is the ability to sleep just about anywhere. However, although I was on the lower bunk and less exposed to the problem, I was unable to sleep with the lights from passing towns making a strobe effect. So I got up and closed the blinds.
Then, just as I was nodding off, the gentle movement of the train doing its thing to lull me to sleep, we hit a bunch of curves. The old train strained against the tracks, groaning and jerking as the contents of our compartment began to rattle. We hit a particularly tight curve and the cupboard doors in the compartment flew open, the bottles fell off the sink and the glasses came flying out. I got up and managed to stash everything so it wouldn’t move again.
Sometime later I was finally about to fall asleep again when the compartment door, despite being locked, flew open, filling it with light and exposing us to the (thankfully empty) corridor. I got up again and double-locked it. After that, it’s all a bit of a blur. At one point during the night, the train stopped somewhere for a quite some time and then performed some sort of manoeuvre. When it got going again, instead of being at the end, we were at the front. It was actually a bit better after that as it seemed we travelled more or less in a straight line.
Still, the Night Jet was bit of a nightmare. Only I didn’t get to sleep long enough during our 8-hour trip to actually have one.
When we arrived in Basel, I did a little namasté of gratitude.
However, the inexplicable chaos continued. When we got home, an ice (ICE?) storm with massive hail stones had just happened, wreaking havoc on our little town. Nothing too serious, thankfully, but here is what happened to the exterior blinds on one window in our apartment.
That’s how you say hello on Sylt, a holiday island that’s been compared to Martha’s Vineyard on the North Sea. In fact, ‘moin’ (pronounced mo-een) is a local way to say good morning, hello and goodbye all over northern Germany.
It’s a surprising place for many reasons. Why? Way up north near the border with Denmark, the island is a mix of Danish and German history, ferry boats, dunes and white sand beaches. It is almost entirely flat, making it a complete change from our usual mountains. It had been two years since I’d seen the sea and we wanted to stay within train’s reach of Switzerland before venturing further afield again. (The train was another story: dedicated post to come!)
We began with a few days in the port city of Hamburg. I’d certainly never spent much time in Germany, even less on holiday, so it was a bit of a discovery. But this city holds a special place in the history our relationship, as the Frenchman spent several months working there in between our initial romance in Canada and my decision to join him in France.
It’s a very green city with a lot of red brick, and interesting contrasts of old and new architecture. Overall, Hamburg reminded me of my hometown, Toronto (before it grew into a megalopolis).
A walking tour was a great way to get to know the city and its history. We lucked into one with an entertaining and informative guide who showed us around the key spots of the port city and brought its history to life for us. We are reluctant tourists who rarely take the time to learn any of this stuff on our own. Mostly we like to wander around and stumble upon stuff. We did that too when we checked out the ultramodern Elbphilharmonie in the Hafen (harbour) district. We booked dinner that night on the terrace of a restaurant just overlooking a live jazz concert in Hamburg’s Hope’n Air series. It was a chilly night but the concert was amazing.
(BTW, I’m adding the links for info rather than any promotional consideration. I find reading other people’s experiences is the best way to get travel tips. If you plan to visit, enjoy!)
We arrived on Sylt (pronounced: zœlt; it seems the ‘y’ in the middle of a word makes a sound like the French ‘œuf’) where the sun was playing hide and seek with a lot of cloud. Unfortunately it did that most of our week there. I’m not complaining: you don’t go to the North Sea for Mediterranean weather, and after the hot summer we had last year, we were ready for some fresh temperatures. However, we hadn’t quite bargained on how wet our own summer in Switzerland would be, so it was a little disappointing to see so much cloud.
Still, we got enough sun to catch the beach a couple of times. One day we rented bikes and went around the north end of the island where we were staying in List all the way through the dunes to Kampen. This is the ritziest part of the island and the cars on the road are proof of it: an uninterrupted stream of Porsche, Audi, Mercedes….and many classic cars. This is one of the humbler ones.
The Germans certainly love their cars. All those big engines with their clouds of exhaust are in stark contrast to the national mania for recycling and ecology. It was certainly odd to be on the island where all of the dunes are protected as nature reserves and can only be accessed via designated cycling and pedestrian paths, while the big cars filled all the parking lots. Even funnier is that cars can only get to the island by train. We saw one train stacked with cars, the drivers and their passengers inside, as they made their way from the mainland to the island.
Two outstanding features of Sylt were the thatched-roof houses and the strandkorb beach chairs. I can forget about owning a house like that; even if I could afford it, I’m not sure how well I’d sleep at night with the risk of the roof burning down. Many of these houses had a system of rods and wires around the roof to prevent fire from lighting. Still, there are some very nice rentals available and if we return, we would definitely go that route.
The beach chairs are another story. These ingenious ‘strandkorbe’ provide shelter from the elements and have little drawers that come out to put up your feet. Unfortunately none was available for rent when we were there. Many of the local restaurants even use this concept to provide patio seating for outdoor dining.
At the end of a week of wind, cloud and rain, we finally got one beautiful day to dip into the North Sea. I love the waves and the salt water. Feeling my toes in the powdery sand again was liberating.
I can understand why this wild and windswept place has attracted people despite the unstable weather. With just a little more sun, it’s the perfect spot to unwind.
The icing on the cake? Cake. We found a little restaurant in Kampen that had a steady stream of people coming in and disappearing into the back. A few minutes later they left with flat paper packages. I discovered the cake counter hidden near the kitchen with a myriad of treats from plum pie to apple strudel — even cheescake!