Sunday, July 6, 2008

Italy, Rigi, Lucerne

Two weekends ago I went to Italy with my mother, who visited me in Europe for a week. We took a sleeper train from Zurich to Rome, and we could tell as soon we got there that Italy is nothing like Switzerland. The train stations are completely different. The attendants act as if they really don't want to have anything to do with you, and the trains themselves were never on time. We nearly missed our train back to Zurich because our train from Naples to Rome was nearly 2 hours late! It was a great relief for me to come back to fully functional, clean, and convenient Switzerland, but my first trip ever to Italy overall was definitely interesting and worth it.

Back in Switzerland, the next weekend we climbed Mt. Rigi outside Lucerne. The morning low-lying clouds were very thick at the summit for a few hours, but by the afternoon it completely cleared and we had the fantastic views we had hoped for. After that we descended to the small towns at the base of Rigi on the lake. That was the probably the most beautiful lakeshore I had ever seen, with the pretty buildings and gardens, the mountains, the old-fashioned ferries, flowers everywhere, and clear blue waters. From there we took a boat to Lucerne, which was also very beautiful. We walked around the town near the river and to the glacier park before returning to Zurich. The next day I took Mom to Lausanne and Geneva so she could see the French-speaking side of Switzerland, which was also fun.

As for work, things have really ramped up for me. I have 4 different projects now that I am trying to undertake all at once. Hopefully I will make significant progress on them before I leave... in less than 3 weeks! To be honest I really wish I could stay much longer, even if I had even more work piled up on me. They really take good care of me at ETH and the city of Zurich is such a fantastic place to live in compared to Houston. I don't know how much I'd like the cold winter, but I do enjoy skiing so there would be at least that highlight.

And as a sidenote on economics and research in Switzerland in general, since that is a topic I see is currently in discussion, I would like to add this. Before I came to Switzerland I was under the impression that Europe was no longer an international epicenter of research and technological industry, and that the US and Asia had taken most of the reigns. I had in my mind a research lab where work would progress gradually and slowly, where everyone would be taking frequent vacations and sipping espressos and lattes on the side whenever possible. And although the Swiss definitely do drink a lot of coffee, my original idea in mind was proven completely wrong. I think they mostly take a coffee break to keep well caffeine levels high for a good life set to the motto of "work hard, play hard". Even for how cheap their higher-education is due to high-favor in the eyes of the federal government, they do not take any of this for granted. They also keep the labs very well-maintained, being very careful to maximize the lifetimes of their subsidized equipments. Their clean-rooms and even their general-use labs make the labs at Rice look like pig pens. This disciplined work-ethic makes it easier to make sure work proceeds on schedule, as they don't have to worry as much about health/environmental hazards or whether or not a machine will be in good enough order to carry out accurate experiments. It's why the Swiss are still well reputed for precision and reliability in engineering and their products are in ever higher demand, since not in most other places are the nearly as concentrated on these slight details that could eventually lead to a less dependable product. But they would not personally admit that, they don't have the time to boast.

The students will work hard all week and when they have a weekend or vacation to themselves, they're either spending time doing something active with their family or friends or travelling around to Italy, Germany, or somewhere else interesting. No sitting at home just watching TV or vegging out completely. Sometimes they're even on military service, which I at first I thought was pretty silly for a forever-sworn neutral country to make mandatory, but that may attribute to their general attitude of hard-work and modesty.

It's almost as if a Rice Honor Code (those of you who are Owls will know what I mean) applies for the entire Swiss population that keeps everyone doing their duty from picking trash up off the street if they see it to paying for public municipal transport even if they know that ticket-officers almost never check them. They are also very friendly towards non-Swiss, despite what other countries have lambasted them as anti-foreigner since they reported the infamous SVP "black-sheep" ads that you sometimes see. They all treat you with ultimate respect and even take the time to learn 1, 2 or even 3 languages other than their own mother-tongue just to be able to communicate with non-locals.

When it comes to finances, they do not spend lavishly on personal luxuries like fancy cars just to show off. They prefer to do whatever is efficient and whatever is least taxing on others. That means being responsible, by taking a bus to work and paying prices that are more near to what we in the US should also be paying for gasoline. I think being in the Alps with it's rapidly shrinking glaciers and relatively difficult cargo-access has given the Swiss a better idea of what wasteful consumption can lead to in effect than what we misbehaving Americans know.

So again, it was a fantastic eye-opening experience for me to come here, and I am very grateful for it. I can't thank enough the Embassy of Switzerland, NSF, ETH, my professors, and my student colleagues and even though I'm not done yet I'd like to remind them if they are reading this now that this is really one of the best pleasures of my life and it would not have been possible otherwise.

PS. Anyone recommend visiting Stuttgart/Munich or Prague? I am looking into them as possible weekend trips before I go.


Dusty said...

I've never been to any of them, but I am going to Stuttgart next weekend, so I will let you know if i recommend it afterward.

Catherine said...

Munich comes highly recommended . . . it's a beautiful city, with definitely more than you could see in a weekend!

bathmate said...

very good posting. i liked it. :-)