Gute fahrt!

It was a very good trip.

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!

Going for the gusto

I don’t know about you but I’ve been itching to get away. A change of scene, a bit of pampering. Living in Switzerland means there’s always something different around the corner. So off we went for a few day’s escape to Ticino.

I found a fabulous hotel by the lake in Lugano that offered a 2-night package and also accepted dogs — at a price, but what the hell: if you’re going to go for it, you might as well go for the gusto.

The amazing thing about living here is that two hours south almost feels like a different country. Italian is spoken and it really does feel a lot like being in Italy. At least a cleaner, more well-heeled version. (I suppose that’s also how Geneva feels for francophiles.)

First we drove south through the Gotthard tunnel. At 17 km long it is world’s longest road tunnel. It was also under construction on one side so there was 2-way traffic in the ‘tube’. I was thankful that husband was driving.

After that, we were in Ticino, Switzerland’s Italian-speaking canton. We stopped for a picnic in its capital, Bellinzona. Known for its three castles, it’s a pretty town with a medieval feel. The sun was shining and we were off to a good start.

Although I can see why this place was empty.

A short time later we arrived in Lugano. We had been here before but never to this grand old lady of a hotel. The boys were welcomed like royalty, with two plush dogs beds and bowls set up in our room.

The Covid-19 rules in Switzerland now are that outdoor service can be offered in bars and restaurants, as well as indoor service to hotel guests. We took advantage of both. A perk of booking our package was dinner in the hotel’s Michelin-star restaurant. Now, normally I am not that kind of foodie; I like real food in reasonable quantity, not multiple courses of molecular cuisine. But what a thrill to sit down and be served after endless meals chez nous!

I took the wine option with my menu which meant a different glass with each course. There was not enough food to soak up the sea of wine that just kept coming, but who’s complaining?

In addition, we had a floor show. Not really, but one of those real-life cliché moments when you want to pinch yourself and say ‘Is this for real?’.  As we sat in our well-distanced corner table in the elegant dining room, in walked a couple out of central casting. He: an older man, flush faced and silver haired. She: a young woman of certain timeless assets, decked out in a form-fitting dress and needle high heels with bejeweled anklets. A word floated into mind, one I hadn’t heard in years: ‘La bimbo‘.

I’d heard the expression used years ago in France on a television news report about someone whose name escapes me — Pamela Anderson perhaps, or Loana from French reality TV. Any one of a certain type of woman — blonde, buxom and playing arm candy to an older man with a healthy bank balance. It seems the meaning of bimbo has changed over time. It started out as Italian for a young boy, morphed into a derogatory term for a brute (male) before hopping the gender divide to be applied to a particular breed of female. Barbie is the term most commonly used in some countries to describe such women.

Anyway, here we were with food and (too much) wine, being entertained by life imitating life.

“Perhaps she’s his daughter,” my husband pointed out.

“They’re holding hands,” I replied. But he was right: I shouldn’t judge. Theirs could be the June-December romance of the century. Or at least the weekend.

I ended the meal with a row of half-finished glasses and no other excuse to feel unsteady as I tottered out of the restaurant on my flat heels back to our room.

The rest of the weekend was wonderful, though the weather clouded over. We took a funicular to the top of Monte San Salvatore for the view and did a lot of walking in Lugano. We discovered a fabulous shopping street with little cafés and amazing produce. I will never look at a salami again with the same innocence. Plus, an excellent shoe store to which I am already planning a return trip. (It only takes an hour and a half by train.)

P.S. We saw the couple again the following night at dinner and once again I scored a ringside seat. She was definitely in command. He sat there looking like a spoiled little boy who had been given a bigger birthday party than he was ready for while she (unfortunately out of earshot) held forth while eating and drinking with gusto.

Do you long to get away? Where to?

Carte postale

The postcard-perfect view from our holiday rental in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland.

We stayed for a week just steps from Staubbach Falls, the highest free-falling waterfall in Switzerland at 297 metres. The falls attracts a steady stream of visitors daily who climb the hundreds of steps up to the lookout point on a rocky ledge behind the falls.

It is amazing to wake up each morning to this view, and to go to sleep with the backdrop of water rushing down from the glaciers.

It seems that the name ‘Lauterbrunnen’ can be interpreted to mean ‘clear spring’ or ‘many springs’ or even ‘noisy springs’. My vote goes to the latter version. Below us was a road that goes to the Jungfrau campground, with a pretty constant flow of traffic. And just across from was a lovely church spire. The bells chime every 15 minutes between six in the morning and ten at night, and every hour on the hour all night long. That means that if you’ve just fallen asleep, exhausted from a day of cycling or hiking, there is a good chance you’ll be woken when the church bells chime out twelve strokes at midnight. One, two and three a.m. seem much lower-profile but are still enough to waken the light sleeper.

Among the tall tales Swiss rental owners will tell you: “Pretty sure the church bells stop at night.” When you point out that they don’t, the reaction is: “Why would they bother you? We don’t even hear them anymore.”

I did not acclimatize to the church bells but still managed to get a good night’s kip with ear plugs and sleeping pills. Not ideal but at the moment I need all the rest I can get. And in between times they were rather pretty…

Now we’re home for another week’s stay-cation before getting back to work and gearing up for our move in a month’s time. I am beginning to panic slightly at the daunting to-do list, so news from this blog may be sporadic for the next few weeks. Please bear with me: I’ll be back soon with a revamped identity and more cross-cultural adventures.

Here’s to ‘clear springs’ to you all until then!

A bientôt…

La Petite Ceinture

Did you know that you can explore history and discover the secret green spaces of an old Paris train line known as ‘La Petite Ceinture’?

The little belt, as it was called, circled Paris long before the métro. A rail line built in the second half of the 19th century, it was designed to link the different train stations and provide an efficient way of transporting freight around the French capital’s fortifications. It began serving passengers in 1862 and the complete rail loop, 32 kilometres all around Paris, was completed in 1869.

Le Métropolitain de Paris, built at the turn of the century, brought about the decline of the Petite Ceinture. From 39 million passengers in 1900, during the Exposition Universelle, the traffic fell to just 7 million in 1927. Le métro soon became the preferred way to get around Paris.

The old line closed down in 1934 and entire sections of the railway were left to decay for many decades. Access was forbidden but the old ‘chemin de fer’ became a kind of ‘secret’ greenbelt enjoyed by graffiti artists and those seeking a haven of calm within the city.

In recent years stations and sections of the old line have been restored and transformed, some as modern links in new transit lines like the ‘RER C’ at Courcelles-Levallois. Other sections have been taken over by restaurants, cultural centres and urban green spaces. Full history and a chart of all the sections here on Wikipedia.

Today, you can access 6.5 kilometres of parks and cultural activities on the restored Petite Ceinture line at different spots all around Paris.

This Saturday, August 31st is the ‘Fête de la Petite Ceinture’. Entry is free with fun and games, nature walks, concerts and workshops happening at different times and places. Visit the City of Paris website for details (in French only 🧐😠).

If you’re lucky enough to be in Paris this weekend, check it out!

Do you know La Petite Ceinture? Have you ever walked along the old train line?

Ile Maurice

The sun was coming up as we touched down at Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam airport in Mahébourg, on the south side of Ile Maurice. After a twelve-hour flight from Zurich, I was happy to see that we were going to get what we came for.

It is winter in Mauritius, which means slightly cooler weather. We mostly had temps around 25 Celsius, a few clouds along with the odd raindrop. Perfect for me as while I love spending time on the beach I am not a huge fan of the heat.

Our destination was Trou aux Biches, a beautiful lagoon on the opposite end of the island. Our driver gave us a guided tour through the mountainous interior during the one-hour ride.

I was surprised to see that English rules of the road apply, with driving on the left side. All of the road signs are in English, but the place names are French. This is due to the island’s colonial past, which switched over several times from Dutch to French to British before becoming independent in 1968.

Most people speak French as well as English, along with Créole and Hindi. The island’s location in the Indian ocean, although it is considered part of the African continent, and its geographic proximity to Asia, make it a popular destination for international tourists.

Fields of ‘canne à sucre’ or sugar cane

‘Canne à sucre’ or sugar cane is traditionally the main industry on the island, and there are fields as far as the eye can see. It seems the crop has suffered of late from competition from the sugar beet, along with the world’s increasing aversion to sugar. Oddly, our driver told us there are also a great many call centers now in Mauritius, taking advantage of the multilingual workforce.

Our resort was a bit of a splurge, with infinity pools and waterfalls, gorgeous landscaping, a semi-private beach (there were still hawkers regularly flogging their wares) and as a bonus, bar service!

This was less of an adventure and more of a beach vacation. All I need is a shady lounger and a stack of books to be happy. It was heaven!

Ile Maurice is two hours ahead of France time-wise, so we woke a bit later than usual. Each day started with bright sunshine and the screeching of birds. Being in the southern hemisphere and the shortest days of the year also meant that the sun set rather early, around 5:30 pm. 

The only inconvenience was mosquitos, which came out in force after dark. We tried to cover up and use deet (yuck) as there have been warnings about the risk of dengue fever. But we sat outside — hey, tropical vacation — and naturally still got bitten. They are tiny little buggers and I neither saw nor felt the bites until they started to itch the next day.

One of the things we enjoyed most on Mauritius was the variety of food. The Indian influence means a lot of spicier options, curries and such, which we both love. Plus the classic French cuisine, along with Italian.

The hotel bar had some fabulous cocktails. My favourite had ginger, brandy and rum. Not too sweet but with a nice kick!

The local beer is also excellent. That’s a Phoenix for me, and Monsieur will have his usual non-alcoholic option.

We left the hotel compound for dinner several times. Aside from the breakfast buffet, which was utterly decadent, the hotel restaurants were overpriced and the food only passable. Also, given the British influence, there was dress code for dinner which meant husband had to wear long pants and shirt with collar – not a win for Monsieur! Fortunately the hotel staff were happy to accommodate by driving us across the resort by golf cart to walking distance from the nearby restaurants. It was a fun ride: those electric ‘voiturettes’ as they call them can really go!

We went back to one place, Le Pescatore, twice. This beet sorbet amuse-bouche was amazing.

The fish was in a light coconut curry sauce. The desserts were to die for!

We took a day trip to visit some sights in the north part of the island. Port Louis, the capital city, served up a mix of old and new.

There was a wonderful market hall with all kinds of fresh produce and goods. As everywhere, the signs are in English.

We are terrible at negotiating so ended up paying way too much for some spices. Ah well, it was fun and at least we supported the local economy!

The surrounding beaches in the north end from Mont Choisy to Grand Baie offered beautiful expanses of white sand flanked by pine forest.

We stopped to see a fishing village called Cap Malheureux (Cape Misfortune) with a history of ships foundering on the rocks and lovely views out to the nearby mountainous islands.

One place on our route was called ‘Balaclava’ and husband asked the driver why. The guide seemed baffled and had no idea what the word actually meant. Turns out that the French had renamed certain places that had been historically dubbed with English names. Thus ‘black lava’ became ‘balaclava’. Nothing to do with the head gear!

Other than that, we did very little. Was it because we had only a week with a long flight on either end? I’m not sure but for some reason, for once I was happy to just kick back and relax. The explorations of the mountains and remote islands will have to wait for a return visit.

On our flight out, despite the clouds playing peek-a-boo, you could see the coral reef that surrounds Mauritius, making it a safe haven for shark-free swimming and snorkeling.­­­­

Au revoir, Ile Maurice! Hope to visit your beautiful shores again one day.