Thursday, July 30, 2009

Getting "Bern"-ed in Switzerland


Accept the cheesy title for what it is – it was too good to resist. For what is maybe the first time in my life, I'm glad that my hands are perpetually icy. They've come in handy all week as ready-to-go ice packs that I can throw on the back of my neck, where I have my first official sunburn from Switzerland! (Sorry Mom. And the rest of the family.) I usually don't burn and considering that I've been out in the sun here for the past three weeks and I've remained the exact same color (no burn, no tan either) while most of my friends have vacillated between shades of pink and red, I assumed that a quick splash of sunscreen on my arms and face would suffice for my journey up Aletsch Glacier. It did, actually -- neither my face nor my arms burned. But, I forgot that the fun thing about scoop-necked tees is the "scoop" part in the front and the back, which I neglected to sunscreen .. and now as a result, I have a stunning scoop-shaped burn on both sides of my neck. But it's not that bad, and all in all, my hike on Sunday was more than worth the burn.

As usual, the past two weeks have been jam-packed with fun times with the other SRP-ers. Thursday night we had our lakeside barbecue/volleyball game/football game/bike ride/late-night swim/seaweed fight. It was one of those nights where everything seemed completely perfect. For the most part, at least. The bottom of the lake was covered with these long, tangled seaweed-like plants, so while swimming we naturally decided to scoop them up with our feet and throw them at each other. That was pretty fun until I got some seaweed in my eye – surprisingly, not as pleasant as it sounds! Getting an eyeful of seaweed didn’t quite fit into my image of the ideal night… but after laugh/cry-ing it out for five minutes, the perfect night resumed. (P.S. Cathy – there may or may not have been a Taylor Swift dance party on the beach. This may or may not have been one of the highlights of the night.)

Then, Saturday morning we all caught an early train into Neuchatel, home to the Notre Dame Cathedral and to enormous stretches of vineyards. We started off by wandering around the cathedral, which was beautiful. I rarely feel religious around buildings that I have no actual ties to, but being inside the cathedral was an experience. It was beautiful, serene, and made me want to hold my breath and look around in awe. After our semi-religious experience, we decided to go for a change of pace and wandered down to the lake, where we found three sculptures – a turntable, big enough for ten people to sit on, and two upright spinning poles with foot and hand holds. So naturally, to counteract the more serious beginning to our trip, we decided to spin around until we were laughing uncontrollably, and then 30 seconds later, until we were nearly ready to vomit. After recovering (mostly), we headed back toward the cathedral and the chateau at the center of the city, and walked around for a little bit before heading by tram to Boudry, a nearby town, for a wine-tasting. After our tasting, we thought we’d buy a few bottles and sit outside and share some wine. Classy, right? We thought so. The vineyard owner whose bottle-opener we asked to borrow didn’t exactly agree. Before being allowed to uncork our bottles we had to assure him that we would not drink the wine a) in the street or b) from the bottle. Out of respect to the wine, if we were going to do either of the two, he could not help us to open the bottles. We reassured him, and then sat down in a courtyard overlooking the vineyards and drank out of Swiss flag cups. We may have looked like tourists, but at least we were respectful.

Then, on Sunday, came the Burn. Part 1. The morning of our hike to Aletsch Glacier started off fabulously – we missed our metro, and then decided to be extra clever and catch the metro in the opposite direction to Renens, so we could catch a train from Renens to Lausanne and still get to Lausanne in time!! Sadly, what they say about Swiss trains is true. They depart right on time. So we got to Renens at 8:09, to find that the 8:07 train had departed exactly 2 minutes before, and there was no chance of catching our 8:20 train to Fiesch, where we would hike the Aletsch Glacier. Alas. So instead, Liza, Delwen, Sheena and I made the most of our extra hour. We toured the 24-hour convenience store in the train station, bought ourselves a tart and mozzarella cheese – the perfect breakfast snack – and then at 9:20, climbed aboard. Around 11:00 we got out at our transfer station, and I had my first real experience of the Swiss language divide. Within an hour and a half we had crossed from the region where everyone speaks French and you hear very little German, to the complete opposite. It was incredibly cool – Swiss German is a fun language to hear spoken, and maybe even more fun to try to speak (you try saying “Züri-Gschnätzlets” five times fast).

Then once we got to Fiesch, our hike began. In terms of hiking, the afternoon wasn’t quite what we had planned – we forgot that when you hike with 17 people, you don’t move quite as quickly as when you travel with, say, three. When we had finished hiking, we looked at the map, expecting to have covered half of the trail … and realized we had barely traveled an inch. But in terms of an afternoon adventure, the glacier was incredible. The entire landscape was absolutely breathtaking. It’s funny – my mom keeps complimenting me on what great photos I’m taking, but this has zero to do with my photography skills and everything to do with the fact that the landscape makes it impossible to take bad photos. Everything looks surreal – in the photos of me standing on a rock, framed by the mountains behind me, it looks like I’m standing in front of a Hollywood green screen. Then, about halfway up the mountain, we saw our promised land: a patch of snow, just begging to be turned into snowballs. So, that’s exactly what we did. After shoving ice down each other’s backs and posing for a ton of pictures, we were ready to resume our hike, but before heading back to the trail, we looked around for a little and decided, hey, the trail was good, but it was full of switchbacks and we were getting pretty hungry … why not just make our own, more direct trail? After all, we’re all in good shape and the rocks ahead looked like they were made for climbing …

Twenty minutes later, when we were climbing with hands and feet up what felt like a 70 degree incline, we regretted our decision. Forty minutes later, when we were staring down at the stretch of rocks we had just cleared, we decided that we were adventurers and that was the best idea we had ever had. Minus the part where we didn’t know if we’d all make it up to the top. It was surprisingly difficult at times, but honestly, I’ve never felt cooler than when I realized I had officially become an explorer. In the future, though, I think I’ll keep in mind that apparently trails are put in place for a reason.

When we got to the top, we could finally see the glacier. It was amazing and beautiful, but honestly, I think the actual hike was even better than the finale. It wasn’t until we were getting on the train home that we all realized the collateral damage we had suffered – each and every one of us was some variation of lobster red. I’m pretty sure Steph wins the prize, though – she’s going to look like she’s wearing a white watch for the rest of the summer. But, no big deal – between our combined international recipes for sunburn treatment (yogurt, honey, and tea being the most popular three), we all managed to get to sleep that night.

Then, the Bern, part two. Yesterday, ThinkSwiss, the company that a) I am blogging for and b) is helping to fund my trip to Switzerland, invited all the American ThinkSwiss students to Bern, the capital of Switzerland. My expectations going into Bern were average – I knew nothing about the city, except that the bears who give the city its name were not in the usual bear pits, since they were under renovations. (They being the pits, not the bears.) But the city far exceeded my expectations, and yesterday was incredible. We toured the city, which has a more metropolitan feel than any of the cities I’ve visited to date, but is still distinctly Swiss and is not too busy and doesn't feel rushed. We climbed to the top of a cathedral to look at the city from above, went to Einstein’s house, and toured the oldest clock tower in the city, build in 1530. Again, I didn’t have particularly high expectations for the clock tower, but it turned out to be one of the cooler things I’ve seen since getting here. It is an elaborate system of gears, pulleys, and levers that marks the zodiac symbol, the month and approximate day, the hours for prayers at that season, and when the sun will rise and set. And at each hour, not only does a bell ring to mark the time, but a rooster crows, a jester dances, a king turns over an hourglass in his hand, and a ring of bears travels around in a circle, all to announce that the hour has changed. It’s wild, and so cool, considering it was built almost 500 years ago.

Then came the perfect end to the evening. We had seen a river from the top of the clock tower, and given that there were people already floating in it, we naturally had no choice but to join. Never mind that none of us had bathing suits with us. Being the intrepid adventurers we are, we traveled to the nearest Co-op City (my second favorite store in Switzerland, beaten only by Migros, which I actually adore), bought some cheap clothes to swim in, and then made our way down to the water. The river is gorgeous, clear, and clean and runs down from the glaciers – which also means it’s ICY. The current is fast in the middle but pretty slow on the sides, so people of all ages climb into the river down one of the staircases, set about every 30 feet on the bank, make their way out to the middle, and float down to wherever they wanted to get off, at which point they’d swim over to the side again and grab hold of one of the railings to climb out. I can’t even explain how much fun it was. I don’t know if the adrenaline rush was from impulsively swimming in our clothes in a strange city, or from the freezing water, or the fact that it was a combination of relaxing and floating on our backs with being slightly nervous and scared that we wouldn’t catch the last railing and we wouldn’t be able to get out, but we went into the river over and over again and were still talking about it today.

All in all, the rest of the Americans and I had been planning to skip Bern when the rest of our group went to visit, but after our day yesterday, I know that I plan to go back.

Suisseventures, part 2. (Copyright credit to Liza’s friend.) I can’t believe I’ve already been here for a month – I don’t want to leave! I’m just so happy I decided to do this program. I had some definite hesitations about going off to a country I didn’t know, to a lab I’d had little contact with before the program, to live with a group of people I’d never met who were quite possibly as different from me as could be. But I don’t know why I ever doubted it – like Governor’s School, and like all the other summer programs I’ve done, this experience is unbelievable and the people are more wonderful than I could have ever imagined. And then on top of all that, I’m in Switzerland. Traveling every weekend, and having the time of my life. So happy to be here.

A bientot!

Hallie

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