Monday, April 28, 2008

Day 79 – Zermatt

At the wee hours of the morning I headed to the train station, to realize one of the dreams of my youth: to be able to hike in the Alps. The train ride is spectacular, particularly when one changes to the Matterhorn-Gothard train, which climbs up the Alps to the small village of Zermatt. Zermatt (1,620 meters above sea level) is a very quaint tourist center at the foot of the Matterhorn (4,478 m), and after making arrangements in a small hotel I was ready to go as high as I could. The easiest way was to take the funicular net to Furi (1,864 m), Trockener Steg (2,939 m), and finally Klein Matterhorn (3,883 m). The funicular itself is an incredible piece of engineering, climbing over “bottomless” glacial valleys, but by the time we got up to Klein Matterhorn the wind was buffeting the cabin so much that it took us several minutes to dock. It was incredibly windy, cold, and snow was very deep, so after braving the elements for a while I decided to go down to more welcoming elevations. Trockener Steg was more pleasant, but still covered with deep snow and unsuitable for a solo hiker, so I ended going back to Furi. From there I walked up the valley of the Zmutt glacier, which forms the eastern flank of the Matterhorn. It was all I could have expected!

Half way up the valley I found a small arch dam, which is part of the extensive system of hydroelectric power generation of Switzerland. This made me reflect on two things: First, the Swiss are very “green” minded, and are big into minimizing their dependence on foreign oil. They are particularly vociferous about reducing use of fossil fuels or using nuclear power, but that is because they have so much hydroelectricity that they don’t feel the energy pinch. Second, the country is beautiful beyond description, but everywhere you see the marks of industrial development. There is hardly a river that is not harnessed for power generation, and there are power transmission lines everywhere (if you look carefully at the photo you will see a transmission tower center-left). The valleys have plenty of green pastures and Swiss cows, but they have to share this paradise with industrial parks and towns, as an unavoidable trade between aesthetic values and development. Here is a photo of the Matterhorn for your viewing pleasure :)

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Day 78 (Sunday April 27) – No money!

Today I went for a walk to the Botanical Garden, walked along the shore of Lac Léman, and jumped on a mouette to cross the bay.

The mouettes are the little public transport boats that have transported the Genevois across “their” lake for more than 100 years, and although modernized they still have the charm of “la belle époque” (on the dark side, it was in a mouette that the Austrian empress Sissi was assassinated by an Italian radical). The lake was alive with great looking ships and hundreds of sailing boats, which were celebrating the first sunny Sunday of spring.

On a whim I decided that it was time to make an escapade to the Alps, so I decided to go for three days to Zermatt. So I went to the train station, used my last francs to buy the ticket, and then stopped at the bank to replenish my wallet at the ATM. Imagine my shock when the stupid machine spit out my card saying that I couldn’t withdraw any money. Not funny. OK, so I went to a second bank, and then to a third one. All to no avail; the stupid machines refused to give me money! Now what? I still had with me a few dollars and euros, so I could finance the trip to Zermatt, but it was very uncomfortable to feel cut off from my source of funds.

Worried about money I came back to the house, connected to the internet, and took a close look at my finances. The probable reason for the refusal of the ATM machines was that there were several automatic payments that had been done last Friday, so I figured I should wait until Tuesday to really panic. However, looking at my bank account I realized that I had less money than I had expected (isn’t that always so?), which called for some review of my further travel plans. The trip through the Trans-Siberian had to be reconsidered, and after much agony I decided that I could not really afford it. Rats!

So I spent the afternoon considering alternatives, and have come up with the following alternative plan, which also takes in consideration the issue of visas and connections from one place to another. Plan B looks like this:

June 3 – Fly from Geneva to Barcelona.
June 3 to June 13 – Travel through Cataluňa and the South of France by rental car.
June 13 – Fly from Madrid to Frankfurt for the Kobberger’s Sommerfest.
June 16 – Fly back to Madrid to stay with Juan Ley and his family.
June 25 – Somehow get to Paris for a few days.
June 29 – Somehow get back to Frankfurt.
July 2 – Fly to Malaysia and visit the mainland by rental car.
July 9 – Fly to Borneo and visit by rental car.
July 16 – Fly to Philippines and visit by rental car.
July 22 – Fly to Honolulu and visit Ouahu for a couple of days.
July 24 – Fly to Hilo and visit the volcanoes for five days
July 29 – Fly to Mexico!

I am little bummed by having to give up the trip through Russia, but Plan B is about half less expensive, and if I “combine” it with the previous visit to India it does feel like I have made enough scales through southern Asia to call it a tour around the world.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Day 77 – Where does Route de Ferney take you to?

To Ferney, of course, as I discovered today by jumping in yet another random bus. Ferney is in France, and is actually called Ferney-Voltaire because it grew around the summer residence of the famous French thinker. Nowadays it is a charming French city, with a lively Farmers Market on Saturday, where the legendary love of the French for “la bonne cuisine” is very much in evidence. I had a great time ambling through the market stalls, and spent way too much money at the local bookstore buying a book-in-CD “Harry Potter et le prisonnier d’Azkaban”. Before you start making fun of me let me add that this is a learning investment, because I need to hear clearly spoken French as much as possible. Yes, I should have probably bought the collected works of Voltaire instead of a kids book, but (1) I needed a book where the story was known to me, so I can concentrate on pronunciation, and (2) the French have not yet discovered the joys of books-on-tape (like having the text read by a very good actor), so there is precious little available.

When I got back home, Auréle was up and ready to go, so we decided to go out for a little driving practice. So he opens the garage and, instead of the dusty and dirty car I was expecting, there is a gleaming VW Bug convertible, lovingly called “La Coccinelle”.

It is the perfect car for cruising, so in grand style we headed along the north shore of Lac Léman, explored the countryside almost to the foot of the Jura Mountains (but the Jura Mountains are in France, and Auréle cannot drive into France with his learning permit), and ended paying a visit to Auréle’s dad, Michel.

Michel lives in a gorgeous old house that overlooks Lac Léman; it forms part of the farm complex of great-great-granddad, and still has a good area of vineyards and pasture. This is the house where Auréle grew up, so he had all sorts of stories about the youthful adventures of himself and his brothers. Michel is pretty high in the World Organization of Workers, and spends a lot of his time traveling to countries where his expertise is needed by unions and national workers’ organizations.

By the time we came back home we were in the best of spirits, looking forward to further travels in La Coccinelle. I reflect that Auréle’s misfortune in not passing his test has resulted on my benefit, because now he has to take me along anytime he wants some practice (alas, his learning permit requires that an experienced driver with a valid driver’s license be by his side, and I am the only one that doesn’t have a life and is available). Dommage!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Day 76 – Nothing to report

Another featureless work day. Finally in the afternoon I went for a walk through the city, which never ceases to amaze me, with its funny mixture of old and modern (notice on the photo the reflection of an old chateau on the glass panes of the modern building).

I also bought a movie of Fernandel. This famous French actor was very popular in Mexico in the generation of my parents because of his role as Don Camilo. Don Camilo (a large and feisty parish priest in an Italian town by the Po River) and Peppone (the communist Mayor of the town) were created by the Italian novelist Giovanni Guareschi, who chronicled their rivalry and friendship in a famous series of books, starting with “The Little World of Don Camilo”, and finishing with “Comrade Don Camilo”. It is this last novel that formed the basis of the movie I bought, which in French is called “Don Camillo en Russie”. It was great fun, but Fernandel speaks with a strong Marseilles accent, so I am going to see the movie many times before I can understand all the funny dialogue.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Day 75 – Pobrecito!

Today is a big day for Auréle, who at 3 pm will be taking his driving test. He is 23, so it is high time he terrorizes the neighborhood at the wheel of the vintage VW Bug (1970’s) he inherited from Yvette, which mopes in the garage for lack of use (the VW Bug, not Yvette). The whole family has been helping him practice, Lorique volunteered his VW Golf as the test vehicle, and I got to drive by his side (to make it legal) to the Department of Motor Vehicles. He is a fine driver, so we were all certain he would pass. Well, he didn’t. The examiner tagged him for four or five stupid little things (e.g., going at 20 kph in a zone of 30 kph, or putting the gear in neutral when he stopped at a stop sign) and very officiously flunked him. Not a big deal, since he can take the test again next week, but a major hearth break for him because the whole family was anxiously waiting for the result (so he had to make many phone calls to say “j’ai raté mon examen”), and there was a big party at home to celebrate his right of passage into manhood. Here is Tio Auréle later that afternoon, sharing his sorrows with baby Cloe.

Oh well, we were not going to let a simple thing like the end of his life ruin the fun, so I took the wheel and drove us to pick up Nura, and from there to buy the ingredients for a huge raclette feast. You may have or have not heard of raclette, so it is worth describing this Swiss party dish. When I have done it at home I use a hot plate and small individual pans, where each guest adds cheese and bits of mushroom, onion, chorizo (or whatever else I have in the pantry), and everything is then melted together. The Swiss version is a bigger and more “regulated” affair. First, the unvarying accompaniments are small boiled potatoes, small pickles (cornichons), small pickled onions, and thinly sliced lean meat (something like prosciutto, but made with beef or venison). Nobody would even think on using different accompaniments, such as mushroom, chorizo, tortillas, or salsa (but there is a special mix of paprika, nutmeg, and pepper that can be sprinkled unto the final product).

Second, we come to the real heart of the raclette experience. You start with two enormous half rounds of special raclette cheese (I think the special thing is that the crust is not waxed, so it can be eaten), and “the machine”. The machine has a gas burner, and supports for the two rounds of cheese that swivel around a post. This arrangement allows one of the rounds to be directly under the burner while the other is being skimmed. So, you try to convince people to sit at the table (there were 16 of us), which is of course like herding cats, and you start the fire. One of the rounds sits under the fire for a couple of minutes, until the exposed cheese starts to bubble. At this point the cook chants “Raclette!” and someone offers his/her empty plate (Auréle is in the back, doing the cook's job). The cook lifts the round with the bubbling layer, and skims it unto the proffered plate. Two minutes later the other round is ready, and the chant is repeated “Raclette!” And so it goes for the rest of the evening, always making sure that the sides of the cheese rounds are being folded into the exposed face, to make sure not a drop of melted cheese is wasted.

The guests receive their plate with a little pool of melted cheese, add pepper or the raclette paprika mix, crush a boiled potato, and happily munch on the combined potato-cheese mix, with intervening bites of cornichon, pearl onions, or lean meat. Everything is, of course, liberally irrigated with good Swiss white wine!

The merry company included Auréle (maybe not the merriest, as he was still wallowing in misery over the failed exam) and Nura, Nura’s sister and her boyfriend, Julie and Thierry with baby Cloe (in the first photo, while Tio Loïc holds Cloe in the second photo), Loïc and his girlfriend Tina, Yvette (behind Loïc in the second photo), Alexis, Scott and a couple of other friends whose names escape me now, and yours truly. Once again, I am happy to report that I was able to engage in conversation in French before and after the raclette, but was in lala land when all of them started to talk at the same time during the feast. As for me, I took my turn at being the cook and ate to my heart’s content :)

Random news are that Thierry has gotten a half-grant to go work in Canada next year, so the whole family is going to move to Montreal for one year. Thierry is interested on doing research on managing alcoholism (his current job as a doctor has a lot to do with addiction management and prevention). Julie would like to work on “art therapy”; she is a Special Ed teacher, and would like to further develop involvement in the arts as a way to help some of her Special Ed students. Cloe just plans to be the cutest baby around. She doesn’t mind being passed around from one pair of arms to the next, so everyone here dotes on her.

Tina, Loïc’s girlfriend (here holding the ever popular Cleo), comes from the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland and is another of those amazing Swiss who can learn any language in a matter of weeks (on top of Italian, English, French, and German she is now starting to learn Russian and Spanish!). Next month she is starting a new job, as assistant to the Purchase Manager of one of Geneva’s nice hotels. She is very excited about the new job, and plans to make a career in the hospitality industry.

OK, enough gossip now, because there is a lot of cleaning to do!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Day 74 – A visit to the zoo

Oh, no, a beautiful day! I guess I will just have to go out for a walk. On the way out I met Julie, baby Cleo, and Julie’s mom, also getting ready to go for a walk. Hey, I was able to string a few sentences together, so maybe I am indeed starting to think in French :)

My walk took me to the banks of the River Rhone, but the path was blocked because they were doing bank stabilization work. Dear students of mine, note the bolts and the use of steel mesh to catch falling rocks.

From there I headed toward the little zoo that is in the middle of the city. It is a little thing, with no exotic animals, but the kids have a good time looking at the wooly pigs, cows, goats, and local water fowl.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Day 73 – Dinner with more of the family

Another work day, but in the evening Auréle came home with his mom, Yvette, and his brother Loïc. Yvette and I have the honor of being godparents to Zoe, but we must have seen each other ten years ago for the last time, so it was a very pleasant surprise to be able to give her a hug. She has four sons (from older to younger): Alexis, Loïc, Auréle, and Tristán. Alexis works as a journalist for the big weekly newspaper Le Matin Dimanche; Loïc works as manager of several restaurants in Geneva; Auréle is doing an apprenticeship with a company that organizes big events (right now the big one is the European soccer match, Euro 2008, which will be played in August in Switzerland and Austria); and Tristán is an audiovisual artist, working mainly in publicity and marketing.

So the four of us went back to Café de Soleil, the local bistro, which happens to be one of the restaurants that Loïc manages. We are in Switzerland, so of course we had to share a wonderful fondue while catching up on old times.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Day 71 (Sunday April 20) – The Red Cross-Red Crescent museum

I spent most of the morning working in the computer, with moderate productivity, but around 1 pm decided that it was time for my dose of cultural activities. Looking for something that was not very far I took the short walk to the Red Cross-Red Crescent museum. It turned to be a very depressing activity.

The museum is very well put together, and you come out of it with an enormous respect for the work that the Red Cross-Red Crescent has done since it was established in 1864, through the efforts of the Genevoise Henry Dunant. You also have to admire the efforts of the Societé de Nations from 1920 to 1946, and its follow-up organization, the United Nations, to promote peaceful understanding among the peoples of the world. However, the long sequence of wars that have wracked the world over the last 150 years is really shocking. There is a timeline along the walls of the museum, which chronicles the history of the Red Cross-Red Crescent since its inception in 1864 on a year-by-year basis. Every panel contains a list of the wars being fought at the time, the natural catastrophes, and landmark events of the organization (including several rounds of the famous Geneva Convention(s)). There were a few years where no natural disasters were recorded, but did you know that there is not a single year in which a war was not being fought somewhere? Most years had a minimum of three armed conflicts somewhere in the world, and more than half of them had at least ten!

The visit gave me much food for thought regarding the world where we live in.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Day 70 – An impromptu visit with old friends

Gustav had to leave early in the morning to go back to Germany, so after l’petit dejuner we said good-bye at the train station in Montreaux. Since I was out and about, I figured this was a good day to pay a visit to my dear old friends Monique and Jacques Roland (Monique is the sister of Lucienne), who live in a small mountain village about 35 minutes north of Lausanne by train. The trip is absolutely gorgeous, with the train slowly climbing out of the valley of Lac Léman into the mid-range elevations of Switzerland.

As Monique met me in the small town of Moudon at about 9 am, and right away took me through a vigorous walk through the village. It is very charming, and like many Swiss towns it has a good 1,000 years of history. After that we went to the neighboring town of Lucens, to visit the castle and do a bit of shopping, and then headed for their home, in the even smaller hamlet of Brenles.

It was good to visit their home “La Chouette”, and to see Jacques. He is a retired protestant minister and a true scholar, so he enjoys passing the time with his books in their very sunny living room. Monique also enjoys her retirement, after many years of working side by side with Jacques in the parish, but remains very active with her choral group and other public activities.

After a delicious lunch I went for a walk, and discovered that, small as it may be, Brenles has lots of personality. For example, there is a local mechanic who enjoys making fabulous welded sculptures that he displays in the fields where he keeps his collection of exotic animals (the little animals around the giraffe are llamas!). I also had a delightful conversation with a farmer and his son, who were trimming the hoofs of their cows with the most modern equipment. I should add that throughout this visit I got to practice my French to my heart’s content.

Later in the day we went for a walk through the open fields (always with the background of fabulous snow-clad mountains), and through the medieval town of Romont. I am not sure what all this folks do for a living, but they sure live in one of the most beautiful spots in Europe.
We finally said good-bye at the Romont train station, but they both told me that I should come visit again for a couple of days next month.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Day 69 – A very pleasant visit

A very early morning phone call brought with it very pleasant news: My dear friend Gustav had come to Switzerland in business, and if he had to spend the night he suggested we could get together for dinner at the other end of Lac Léman (or Lake Geneva to give it a more international name). The possibility allowed me to survive a long wait for information at the Russian consulate. I still don’t know for certain, but feel that if I can gather all the documents I have a sporting chance of getting the visa. Here is another catch 22, because I have to produce a “letter of invitation” from a travel agency, detailing all travel tickets and hotel reservations, which I cannot get unless I pay for the trip. So I have to pay a lot of money without knowing if I would get the visa or not! Anyway, let’s forget the subject for the moment and dwell on happier experiences.

OK, Gustav figured that he had to spend the night, so I took the train to the town of Montreaux, on the east end of Lac Léman, and met my gran amigo at the train station. Montreaux is a big tourist destination, and we had a very nice walk along the lake (and a glass of good Swiss wine) before heading upstream of the valley of the River Rhone. The river flows along the bottom of a u-shaped valley carved by a glacier, and the views are truly spectacular (Lac Léman itself is a type of intermontane fjord, as it occupies a deep elongated trough gouged by the glacier).

The high point of the evening was a nice conversation over a gourmet dinner at Le St. Christophe, a non-descript small hotel at a medieval customs building with the most fantastic chef. I had a fois gras (the real thing, not pathé) avec la sauce d’framboise, and Gustav and I shared a thick steak Chateuxbriand, everything liberally accompanied by fine Swiss wines. I may need to change my opinion about the joys of fine dining.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Day 68 – Visas, what an annoyance!

Not much to report, except that I spent most of the day worried about the problem with visas. Indeed, the problems associated with getting a Chinese visa appear insurmountable. Reportedly the Chinese want you to get your visa in the country of your residence, no more than a month before the start of travel, and the backlog is such that it takes up to 30 days to get the visa. Sounds like a catch 22 to me, so with tears in my eyes I am beginning to think about alternatives. One possibility is to do the trip crossing only Russia, from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok (and from there to Los Angeles and Mexico), as I had originally intended. The Russian visa is still a challenge, but at least it is only one visa problem to deal with. Another possibility is to fly to Thailand, and from there jump to Indonesia or Philippines and from there fly to the US (via Hawaii) and from there to Mexico.

Arghh, visas are a medieval annoyance to the modern traveler. I like the way the Malagache do it, where you get your visa at the port of entry. In that way the country collects a fee for receiving visitors, but one major barrier to tourism is minimized. Of course, there is always not having any visa requirements for short-term tourists, like in the countries of the European Union, which is absolutely civilized in the 21st century.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Day 67. A walk through France, and reflections over the Trans-Siberian

The day is once again gorgeous, so I have to get out. I think I will go to France. So, I took the bus D to the border, and walked into the little town of St. Julien in France. Cute, in a modern sense, with most of its charm being in the surrounding snow-clad mountains.

I always had the impression that France was an expensive country, but in comparison with Switzerland it is actually cheap. I bought a baguette and some pate for under three dollars, had a very nice European lunch, and on the way back I bought a whole leg of jamón Serrano espaňol (Spanish prosciutto ham), which now hangs in the cellar for our future enjoyment.

Back at home I had the necessary energy to write one more chapter before getting distracted by the internet about the Trans-Siberian leg of the trip in late June and early July. The Trans-Siberian is the longest railway line in the world, crossing more than 8,000 km (about 6,000 miles) from Saint Petersburg to Beijing. My plan, as it stands right now, is to arrive in St. Petersburg on June 26, spend a couple of days in St. Petersburg (1 in the map), and then start on the route St. Petersburg (1) – Moscow (2) –Irkutsk/Lake Baikal (3) -Mount Khentii (Mongolia) - Ulanbaatar (Mongolia, 4) – Beijing (5). At each of these stops I would have a couple of days to visit (the train only runs every other day). From Beijing (around July 18) I would like to travel to Guangzhou (6), in southern China, to spend four or five days with my friend Klaus before going to Hong Kong (also 6) to fly to Taipei (around July 25) to visit Yinru for a couple of days, then Hilo in Hawaii, and finally Mexico City (around August 4).

A concern at this time are visas. Russia, Mongolia, and China don’t take very well to the free-spirit traveler, and Klaus has warned me that the Chinese are particularly tough at this time due to the Olympic Games. I need to address the visa issue ASAP.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Day 66. Texas Hold’em

Nothing much to report about the day, except that I worked very steadily, because Thierry had told us that tonight a bunch of people were coming for a grand tournament of Texas Hold’em.

Indeed, starting at about 7 pm the crowd started gathering. Let me see, to start with there were Arto, Thierry, Auréle and Nura, Alexis (Auréle’s brother) and his girlfriend Jennifer (in the photo), Jacques and Sara, Sylvan, and yours truly. Unfortunately Alexis and Jennifer had to leave due to an emergency, so that left the regulation eight players. We all came in with $30, and for about 3 hours I managed to stay in the game. Win a few, loose a few*, but at the end I lost my last chip and had the good sense not to buy any more.

Here are a few of the gamblers (from left to right): Horacio, Auréle, Arto and Arto (again), Thierry, and Sylvan.

Tterms used in Switzerland for card games include:
Paire – two of a kind or pair
Brelan – three of a kind or set
Suite – Five on a row or straight
Couleur – Five of the same stock or flush
Full – a pair and a set
Carré – Four of a kind or poker
Quinte flush – Five of the same stock in a row or straight flush
Olín – This termed baffled me for a couple of hours, until I figured
out they were saying “all in”

At the end Auréle and Sara won the tournament (and a handsome sum of money) and we all had a good time.

* Shame on my students for not teaching me how to play Texas Hold’em. I was but a pigeon in the hands of “les requins” (the sharks)!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Day 65. A very pleasant dinner.

The day did not start in a very auspicious way. First, I was not very inspired to work on the chapter on coasts, so writing was painful; second, the day was overcast and a little raining; and third, the sole of one of my shoes detached itself from the leather. Since I have but the one pair of shoes I had to do something about it, so that was my excuse for going out to town to look for some sort of shoe cement. I also looked at work boots in a couple of shops, but I am not spending $200 in a pair of shoes!

I did find the local Home Depot (a branch of the big supermarket chain called Migros), bought the glue, and came home some other way, ready to battle with the troublesome chapter. The house had been closed all day, so I opened a couple of windows to create a chilling but energizing draft.

At about 6 pm Nura came home, after a long day working congress reception in a drafty corridor. The poor thing almost froze as she entered the house, and we had to close all windows on a hurry. I should add that Nura is very “schlimm” (sorry, a joke between Chrissy and I); no, I mean she is very “schmal” or slim, so she gets cold very easily. Here is a photo of Nura and Auréle.

A few minutes later Auréle’s dad came in, looking for his son, and we had a very pleasant conversation in my halting French. Auréle finally came in, and they took off together, so Nura and I decided to cook and have dinner together (pasta with cream and zucchinis and left over picadillo from the previous day). It was a delightful dinner. Nura is very patient and helps me along with my French, so we meandered in friendly conversation over our personal histories (her dad is from Lebanon and her mom from Egypt, so she had a lot of travel stories to tell), politics, and current events in Europe for a good couple of hours. Very enjoyable!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Day 64 (Sunday April 13) – More sun in beautiful Genève

I can see that getting work done is going to be more of a challenge than I had thought. Another glorious day called for a new round of exploration, so I decided to follow one of the four walking itineraries recommended by the Tourist Information bureau. This one is called “From History to Modernity”, and took me through the park of the United Nations, a special exposition on “Living in a Nuclear World” at the Museum of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, and many neighborhoods and parks. I am very impressed with Genève, and will treasure this chance to live in a beautiful city.

Later in the afternoon Auréle and I had an early dinner together (picadillo con arroz blanco), and then the poor garçon had to go to work. I, in contrast, spent the evening watching violent films in the TV (French lessons, you know) and working on the chapter on Coasts and coastal erosion.