Saturday, May 26, 2012

Funiculì, Funiculà

First Day
Our plane blasts off from Tampa, like an arrow aimed at Switzerland.

The Edelwiess plane is stuffed with creature comforts, but it's ridiculously hot. I joke that the Swiss don't believe in air-conditioning. I sweat like Nixon. Friday turns into Saturday.

Saturday starts with a bit of time travel. We fly into the sun, going six hours ahead in time by human reckoning. Real time, it's a nine-hour flight. Clock time, the flight takes 15 hours. When I'm conscious, I spend the time reading Neal Stephenson's Anathem. Brilliant but wordy writer, but on a long flight, that's not a problem. Hundreds of pages later, we land in Zurich airport. It feels like noon, but morning is breaking.

Our tour group shuffles off the plane like zombies. Another oompa-band awaits us in the airport. And two dudes in stupid outfits blowing alpine horns. Not so charming as yesterday's band. But I suddenly want a Ricola.

We make it from the airport to the train station. The train arrives, exactly on time. We find seats. Waiting to roll. I'm looking out the window at the Swiss commuters doing their morning commute. First impression? The Swiss are in great shape. I see no pot bellies or thunder thighs. In Switzerland, Homer Simpson would have six-pack abs.

We roll. Zurich slides by, a city that gets stuff done. A city that puts the stuff away when the job is over.

Second impression? The Swiss are neat.

We pass various construction sites and railroad yards. There are stacks of iron bars. American construction worker would toss 'em in a pile and grab a beer. The Swiss stack. They stack at right angles to the other stacks. Even the graffiti looks tidy. The taggers color inside the lines here.
We glide past all this Cartesian order. Glide, I say. The train is smooth and almost noiseless. No clickety-clack. I've heard elevators that make more noise.

The train takes us, in an eyeblink, to Fribourg. In another eyeblink, the ridiculously efficient Swiss public transportation system takes us to the Hotel Au Parc. Bing. I'm in my room. At this point, I want to shut my eyes and crash. But this is not the Swiss way. There is, perhaps I have forgotten to mention, a schedule. There's time to shower, and that's pretty much it. I try to find the air-conditioning, but there isn't time. I head back down to the lobby and join the group.
Catherine appears, our smiling, bright-eyed tour guide. She's flanked by two assistants. It's time for a three-hour walking tour of Fribourg! So we walk. For the next three hours.

It's a hot sunny day. Spring has sprung in Switzerland. Back at the hotel, I've got a suitcase full of sweaters and long sleeve shirts. Who cares? I'm in Switzerland. In Fribourg. We walk.

The town is achingly pretty. It's not just the scenery. It's not just the old buildings -- they're not all old. There's a mix of cool old stuff and cool new stuff. Somehow, it all hangs together. Somehow, the town feels like an organic whole. I can't put my finger on why -- and why towns in Florida look like cancerous sprawl in comparison.

This is not to say Fribourg is utopia. One of Catherine's assistants subversively points out the effects of encroaching gentrification. Rich people from all over the EU are buying up places to live in this charming city, and pricing the locals out. I tell him native Floridians have the same problem. We walk on. Our aerobic tour takes us up and down steps and all along the watchtower. From one high vantage point, Catherine points out a funicular. What the hell is a ...

"Funicular," as in that old Italian song -- "Funiculì, Funiculà." Now, at last, after years of ignorance, I find out what a funicular is. Now, you will too. Wait for it. Wait for it. Drum roll ...

A funicular is a chain-driven tram on a hill. Yep. The chain goes up a track then loops back down again, connecting two trams at either end like counterweights in a pendulum clock. A motor pulls the chain: When one tram goes up, the other goes down. That's a funicular. This charming piece of old-school tech runs on waste water. The Swiss are very green.

So, a few steps and parapets later, our stroll takes us past some loutish fellows in a public square. (Our tour guide says they're an ethnic group called "Bols" -- but can't confirm if I have the spelling correct. Still, the name sounds appropriate, don't it?) They flirt with our women. One of the drunkards keeps doing this weirdly accurate imitation of a cookoo clock. A fan of Orson Welles, perhaps.

We duck into Pinte des Trois Canards, which I think is French for "Three Ducks Drinking a Pint." After an insanely fresh salad, the entree arrives; river trout swimming or maybe drowning in rice pilaf, followed by meringue and strawbs.

An efficient bus returns us to the hotel. I return to my room.

My room's hot. Like I said, spring has sprung. I call the front desk and tell the desk clerk that the air-conditioning is broken. Tick tock. Silence on the line. Then, "Air ... the air is broken?" No. The air conditioning. The air conditioning is broken. "Air conditioning?" It's as if I just said, "The jibbertyjeeback rod is padiddle on the flibbertigibbet." After a moment of incomprehension, the clerk figures it out. Ahh! This guest is not insane. He is an American. Americans have evil machines that poison the air in their buildings. Right. They call these things "air-conditioning." He's read that somewhere. "Oh, air-conditioning! Now I know what you mean." Polite laughter. He tells me they have no air-conditioning, but I am free to open the windows. Great. I open the windows. A nice breeze blows in. When in Switzerland ...

The Swiss don't believe in air-conditioning. I said that on the plane as a joke. It's no joke. Who knew?

While they may lack AC, the Swiss are big on soft, downy beds. I flop down on the bed. After all that walking, I should crash like a stone. Uh-uh. I can't sleep. Jet lag done got me, so I write. Until 4 in the morning. Swiss time.

Insomnia is the mother of invention.

That's why you're reading this stuff. 

There are no Homer Simpsons in Switzerland. At least at the Zurich train station.
The Swiss are neat. Construction workers and graffiti artists included.
The Swiss don't believe in air-conditioning. Really.

No comments: