Fear and loathing in Switzerland (Part 1)

February 5, 2013 § 3 Comments

Up until three weeks ago, Switzerland was the only country in Western Europe I’d never visited (not counting mini-nations like Andorra, San Marino, etc.), and I was okay with that. I have no interest in skiing, eye-wateringly expensive watches, or dodgy banks. There was also the unfortunate fact that every Swiss person I’d met had conformed with eerie precision to stereotype: arrogant, smug and boring. (Even the lute-playing, glittery-jeans-wearing assistant d’allemand from Aarau whom I met during my year as an assistante d’anglais in France ultimately turned out to be a crashing bore. Which is saying something.) However, every so often a niggling little voice would pierce my blissful Swiss ignorance to say ‘you know Switzerland has amazing art collections…’ There is also the fact that one of my very favourite artists is Félix Vallotton (though he had the excellent sense to swap Switzerland for Paris at the earliest possible moment), and the largest public collection of his work is held in his birthplace, Lausanne.

So when a chance to courier a loan to an exhibition in Lausanne came up several months ago, I jumped on it. Little did I know that the trip would be less the easy three-day job I’d signed up for and more Fear and Loathing in Switzerland… minus the suitcase of Class A drugs that the esteemed Dr Thompson had at his disposal. (Although that might have made it slightly more tolerable. Or at least more interesting.)

Day 1

Snow has been predicted in London all week, but there is no sign of it the day I leave. Loading the crate goes smoothly, the flight likewise – but we’re late arriving in Zurich, where it is snowing heavily. The transport agent meets me at the gate and takes me to his car for the drive to the cargo warehouse. The roads are treacherous and clogged. He apologises to me several times over the course of what should be a five-minute drive, which takes twenty. I’m not so much annoyed as I am alarmed and confused. A significant part of Switzerland’s fame rests on snow and ice, large quantities thereof. Shouldn’t they know how to deal with it?

While waiting in the freezing warehouse for the container to be unpacked, the agent gets a call from his boss. My German is nowhere near good enough to understand his side of it, but from his expression and tone of voice I can tell it isn’t good news.

‘The roads between here and Lausanne are really bad,’ he tells me after hanging up. ‘Apparently it’ll take a good five hours to get there.’ (It’s 6.30 pm.) ‘My boss thinks it’s best if we keep the crate in our warehouse overnight, put you in a hotel nearby, and leave for Lausanne first thing tomorrow.’

This isn’t what I wanted to hear – not least because it means getting up at 4.30 am for the second day in a row, but once assured that the works (and I) will be safer this way, I assent. An hour and a half later, the crate is safely ensconced in the warehouse and I’m in my hotel. I get my first taste of how horrifically expensive Switzerland is when I go down to the restaurant to order dinner. The cheapest dish on the menu is mushroom pizza – 19 Swiss francs. When I take my first bite, I immediately realise that the mushrooms are tinned. I’ve just paid the equivalent of nearly £14 for tinned-mushroom pizza. (In all fairness, I’m not paying for it myself. But still!)

The sad pizza dispatched, I retire to my room and ring my boyfriend. ‘How’s Lausanne?’ he asks. I tell him what happened and, in spite of his commiseration, I feel light-hearted, as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders.

‘You know, every courier trip I’ve done up until now has gone so smoothly I always think the next one is the one that’ll go wrong,’ I say. ‘And now one has, and it’s not so bad. I don’t have to worry about it anymore!’

Words I’ll have ample occasion to regret uttering over the next several days.


Day 2

I’m up bright and early (or rather, dark and early). One of the drivers collects me from the hotel and we drive to the warehouse over streets that haven’t been cleared. A night’s worth of traffic has packed the snow down and it’s turning to ice. My sleep-fogged brain (leaving this early meant no breakfast and therefore no coffee) wonders yet again why the city fathers haven’t seen fit to clear the streets.

Thankfully, the motorways are completely clear and we’re off without a hitch, in the pitch black. The two drivers chatter away to each other in Schweizerdeutsch, which sounds to me like the Swedish Chef attempting to speak German. I rapidly give up any attempt to understand them and fish my iPod out of my bag. The road spools away to the sounds of Django Django and Glen Hansard while I try desperately to stay conscious. I’m surprised I don’t give myself whiplash with all the nodding off and jerking awake.

The sun only starts to peek over the horizon as we roll into the Vaud. It has snowed in Lausanne, but – miracle of miracles – the streets are clear. The staff of the exhibition venue are all sympathy for my difficult journey and as soon as the crate is stowed and the paperwork taken care of, they bundle me, exhausted and relieved, into a cab to my hotel.


Lausanne interlude

Lausanne Cathedral - the painted porch

Lausanne Cathedral – the painted porch

Lausanne is lovely. (This is a thought I find myself clinging to with increasing desperation at later points in this trip.) It feels like a French provincial capital that happens to be surrounded by mountains. I spend a magical hour at the Musée cantonal des beaux-arts, which is closed for renovations but whose curator I had written to about seeing two of Vallotton’s paintings. She takes me down to the store, pulls out the relevant racks, brings me a chair and vanishes with the request that I come and find her when I’m finished. I have a nice lunch and catching-up session with A., a French colleague from my LA days who is now a curator at another museum in Lausanne. The next day I visit the cathedral, which has been quite thoroughly Viollet-Le Duc’d but retains its astounding painted porch, and spend an age gawping at the sculptures. I repair for lunch to a nearby café called P’tit Bar run by a friendly old Swiss hippie (no, I didn’t think they existed either) and her much-pierced younger assistant, which has excellent sandwiches and a staggering tea selection. There’s a market taking place in the narrow, winding streets of the old town which I enjoy wandering through, despite the cold; I don’t buy anything there, but I happen upon a shop selling Vaudois specialities and buy a bottle of Poire William for my boyfriend. It starts to snow very lightly at the end of the afternoon, but I’m happily ensconced in a warm salon de thé (which, inexplicably, is called ‘un tea-room’ in French-speaking Switzerland) with a café crème and a cannelé.

Life is good.

Lausanne cathedral - the painted porch

Day 3

Coffee and cannelé finished, I collect my bag from the hotel and head to the station to catch a train to Geneva airport. (The reason I’d had to fly into Zurich is that it is, annoyingly, the only airport in Switzerland that handles freight.)

Once through check-in and security, I realise something is rotten in the state of Denmark… I mean Switzerland. The terminal is heaving. There are enormous crowds milling about, sitting on the floor (not enough chairs) and generally looking disgruntled and worried. A glance at the departures board explains all: flight after flight is being cancelled or massively delayed. About every five minutes, a clipped female voice announces in French and English that a flight has been cancelled and will the passengers please collect their bags and proceed to the airline desk to rebook. The delays are so bad, in fact, that my flight (which is scheduled for 9.30 pm) isn’t even on the board yet.

To distract myself and pass the time, I do a trawl of the shops. It might sound like an exaggeration to say that they are all watch, jewellery and chocolate shops, but that is, quite literally, all that’s on offer. The level and relentlessness of luxury – especially of a type that has never held the slightest interest for me – makes me uneasy. Having reached the end of the shops, I return to the waiting area and find a railing to lean against: there are no chairs and the floor, packed with waiting travellers, is also covered in litter. My notion of Switzerland as a preternaturally, eerily clean country quietly gives up the ghost.

Nine o’clock passes. Nine-twenty. Nine-thirty. At 9.45, a big red ‘annulé’ (cancelled) finally appears on the board beside my flight.

Stunned (and also very tired – I’ve been on my feet for over three hours), I fight my way down to the bag claim. If I thought the terminal was a madhouse, this is at least a hundred times worse. The crowds are so big that they must pose a significant fire hazard. It’s hot, stuffy and near impossible to move. The carousels are piled high with luggage from countless cancelled flights. I hunt for a good ten minutes for an airport employee to ask about the whereabouts of my bag. When I find one and ask, he glares at me and barks ‘Find it yourself!’ and stalks off before I can respond.

After much fruitless wandering, I find the carousel with the bags from my flight – piled three deep on the belt. I’m hemmed in on all sides by distressed and angry Brits. (The woman standing next to me has had three cancelled flights today.) My bag sails past before I can get hold of it but a hand darts out and rescues it.

My good angel is a young Englishman with floppy rust-red hair and a frank, friendly face. He reminds me a little of Damian Lewis (perhaps just because of his hair). I thank him but he smiles and says ‘Don’t mention it’ and melts back into the crowd. I struggle back upstairs like a fish swimming against the tide and join the discouragingly long, slow-moving queue at the Swissair desk.

After nearly an hour, I finally reach the front of the queue and an agent who couldn’t be less sympathetic and helpful. I now learn an unpleasant truth. There is something much worse and more infuriating than the infamous Gallic shrug: the Helvetian shrug. The Gallic shrug, even if maddening, a. has a certain undeniable panache and b. drives the French themselves crazy (I know, all my French friends have said so). The Helvetian shrug is the product of a neutral country and a Calvinist one at that. It’s a shrug that says ‘yes, I see you’re in trouble but I simply can’t be bothered to deviate from my cosy routine to help you. Now sod off.’ It’s a shrug that is a logical result of Calvinism, that brilliantly brazen perversion of Christianity that justifies not helping those in distress by reasoning that if something bad happens to you, it’s a sign that you’re a bad person and not one of the elect. Perhaps it’s my stress speaking, but it’s precisely the sort of shrug I can imagine Jewish refugees receiving when they sought asylum here during the war: ‘Sorry, can’t help you today, just go back to Germany, there’s a good chap. Don’t forget to leave your money, jewels and art on the way out.’

The Swissair agent, who has grudgingly booked me onto a new flight that leaves tomorrow afternoon at 1.20, has just informed me that all the airport hotels are full up and I’ll just have to go into Geneva and find my own accommodation, which Swissair will cover to a maximum of 150CHF. I’ve been in Switzerland long enough to have realised that the likelihood of finding a room for this price is slim to nil.

‘But I’ve never been to Geneva before! I don’t know my way round, I’ve no idea where to find a hotel, and it’s 11 pm!’ I protest.

I get the Helvetian shrug. ‘If you’re from London, you’ll find Geneva very easy.’ I draw another breath to protest and, obviously bored of dealing with me, he says, ‘If you insist, there’s a tourist welcome desk downstairs that can book you a room for a fee.’

I queue again, for another forty-five minutes. The tourist welcome desk agent is cut from the same cloth as the Swissair agent. When I explain my predicament to him, he shrugs, ‘I doubt you’ll find a room for that price in Geneva at such short notice.’ I plead with him and finally, as if he’s doing me a huge favour, he finds a room for 89CHF in a hotel near the main station. Heaving a sigh of relief, I hand over the fee, take the receipt for the booking and dash for the train.

When I turn up at the hotel, the clerk – a bored-looking man in a hideous pink-striped tie – has never heard of me or my booking. Panicked, I flourish the receipt and, as slowly and disobligingly as everyone else I’ve dealt with in Geneva, he searches and yes, indeed, there is one room left.

As he’s handing over the key, the front door opens and a man with a familiar head of red hair and a ski bag slung over his shoulder appears – Damian, my saviour at the bag claim. He asks about a room and is told there are none left, and, glad as I am to have secured the last one, I feel a small pang of guilt. ‘No worries, I’ll look elsewhere,’ he says, smile unwavering.

‘Good luck!’ I call after him.

The room is a slightly more spacious version of the sardine-tin-sized chambre de bonne I lived in as an assistante d’anglais, complete with the rock-hard bed, 1950s furniture, dreadful lighting and paper-thin walls. It’s stiflingly hot. The shower and toilet are at the other end of the corridor. Still, it’s a room. I make my preparations for the night and collapse in bed.

I don’t sleep a wink.


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