Sunday, June 14, 2009

Of Labs and Mountains

Hello again from Lausanne! This past week should prove to be more typical now that I am finally settled in here (I think). It's really quite incredible to leave work and immediately be greeted by the alps and Lac Léman, and I'm already starting to dread my eventual departure. Fortunately, I will not have to do that for a while! The pictures this week are, except one, of my weekend trip to Rochers-de-Naye and Montreux, which I'll talk about later in this blog.

As I said in my last blog, I was invited out to a little Swiss village to visit my mentor from the lab. It's only about 20 minutes by bus, but it's an entirely different world. It's a place where you can buy milk from the guy across the street, the presence of whose children in the yard tells you whether or not he's still open for the day; a place for growing your own vegetables in the yard, mushrooms in your cellar, and parsley in your window; and finally, a place to just get away from it all for a day. Probably most I learned about Swiss milk and its uniqueness. It all derives from the richness of the alpine plants which flavor the milk. I was told that you can "taste the difference" in the fresh milk when cows are let out from the barn after a long winter. Unfortunately, there are no pictures, as it was truly a kind of rainy afternoon. There's always the imagination, though!

Doing laundry is very different here. Many people in apartment complexes have "laundry day", where it is their day (or half day) to do laundry. Fortunately where I am it's only a sign-up sheet, but still, this is unusual for me.

Let me first say that it is incredibly challenging to pick out appropriate laundry detergent and softener when all your choices have labels in 3 languages, only one of which you are somewhat capable of understanding. I got through the buying stage, just to be briefly confused by this washing machine. The washing machine speaks in 4 languages, which you can switch between using a singular button. The construction of this machine, I am told, is the same as my Grandmother's very first...take a look at the picture of the closing tub on this top-loader for a trip down memory lane!

The work in the lab is interesting, and I am already noting so many differences between US and Swiss lab work. For instance, starting lab work in the US means going through endless safety classes and lab tours, regardless of your previous experience. In Switzerland, a general understanding of lab safety is passed along by those who supervise you, and there are no forms or "red tape items" to complete. However, working with lab animals, like mice, is much more time consuming in Switzerland. In the US, it is simply one more of the overviews you must listen to before starting work. Here, it is a week long set of classes with both theory and practical elements. The quality of work in both places seems totally unaffected by the difference, though! I am also getting used to changing the way I write the date on things, day first, then month, not the other way around!

While sitting at lunch one day, I was discussing with other Tschoppies (people in my lab, given our PI, Professor Tschopp) ideas for places to visit while I am here. One place that came up was Rochers-de-Naye, a beautiful mountaintop less than 2 hours by train from Lausanne. Up there, I was told, there was a "marmot reserve". After figuring out that US marmots are termed "groundhogs", I immediately followed with "Oh, in the US they are considered pests and we generally try to shoot them." Response from a Swiss-French: "Why do you Americans always want to shoot things?" Answers, anyone?

Another fantastic lab tradition is the annual soccer (football) tournament. All the biology related labs from UNIL and the CHUV (the area hospital) gathered at a field by the lake to play football together. For the most part, my lab was not that serious about this - we just wanted to have fun. Unfortunately, some other teams were not of a similar persuasion, as they came in cleats and jerseys. The first team we played was particularly serious, and when I asked why, I was told "Well, they're Italian". Guess that little bit of cultural knowledge has been lost on us Americans. But, it was a great opportunity to talk to others from all over the world about football in their country. So far, the tally of people calling it "soccer" are the US, Australia, and Japan. The Australians have their own special flavor of football, which is more similar to rugby from what I can tell. The Japanese, however use "football" to refer to American football. I thought all other countries called soccer "football", but I am lucky enough to be in a lab with people from 2 countries who don't!

For my little travel trip of the weekend, Ishita (also a ThinkSwiss Scholarship recipient, you can read her blog!), her flatmate Nasreen (from Pakistan), and I teamed up to go to Rochers-de-Naye and Montreux. I really wanted to see these famous marmots, and the statue of Freddy Mercury of Queen in Montreux. The trip up the mountain was absolutely stunning. You ride up in this little train with cogwheels in between the two typical tracks for the steep climb. Very quickly the view of Lac Léman appears in unusual splendor as it ducks in and out of the trees. After a 2km climb, ears popping through the last bit, we finally arrived at the top. The view was just outstanding. We all took so many pictures, but agreed that none of them really did justice to this place. The setup is a series of ridges you climb around, with an alpine garden on one side and a marmot reserve on the other.

We first climbed across the ridge to the alpine garden, set into the side of the ridge. All these delicate little flowers had signs beside them giving the name (often in many languages). I was told to watch for the Edelweiss, of Austrian and Sound of Music fame. I looked all over for it and finally found it - although a rather different sight than I thought! Little flowers were all over the place, though, not just in the garden. We took pictures among them, and the most prevalent was this little white flower, the picture of which I have posted here.

The marmots are divided into 7 parks (or enclosures) by area of origin. They even have a little tunnel you can go through to get a sight of them underground, although I didn't see any that way. They're not too active or too outgoing, these marmots, but it was a very novel thing to see! After walking past the marmots, you get to walk along to the very last ridge. It seems to be a European tradition to mark the top of mountains (especially the highest point) and maps of the surrounding region, so you know what you're looking at from each direction. Overall, it is hard to describe, the pictures are your best guide.

Even though we never really wanted to come down from the mountain, we did, and went to Montreux. It is a very beautiful city just about 14 mi east of Lausanne, with an incredibly well-manicured lakefront dotted with palm trees, flowers, and docks. The "jewel of the Swiss riviera" is also home to the Freddy Mercury statue. He recorded his last album here, and so this is the home of his now immortalized figure. It seems to be a tourist magnet, as people pop out of the crowd to take their picture with Freddy. It's a 45 minute walk from Freddy to the Chateau de Chillon, one of the best-preserved 14th century castles in all of Europe. This, again, is hard to describe in words, so the pictures will be your guide here. The castle sits right on the water, and so getting to the top of the highest tower is rewarded by an astounding view. Another bit of trivia - loopholes are little round windows through which archers can shoot. One of the pictures is of this strucutre. Gives a little more clarity to the meaning of the term, now doesn't it?

Another note, if you ever intend to come here (which by now you should), it is very worthwhile to look into rail passes before your arrival. I paid 150 CHF for a railpass, which gives me half off every Swiss rail fare for a year. They also have rail passes for shorter periods of time, but given the reliability and flexibility of the trains here, it's definitely worth the money. So on that note, au revoir! I will post again after this next week, when I take a little break from lab work for a trip to Paris.

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