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A good year spent in the land of cheese and chocolates!

Last week, I completed a year’s stay in the land of Alps, cheese and chocolates – Switzerland!          

It’s been the longest I have stayed away from India, even though I have done crazy relocations to different parts of the world earlier. I have no clue where life will take me next, if I do move again, but I do know that this last year has been a very significant one in my life.          

Not everything about my life in Basel, Switzerland is rosy, but the experience has been overwhelmingly positive.  I truly believe that our lives in any place are a function of our attitude to embracing the change, and the people around us. I have moved cities, countries and continents, and have always found wonderful people where I went.  With some of the friends I value, I could live in some godforsaken desert and still be happy 🙂    

I was also very lucky to be born in such a wonderful country like India. I think Indians are inherently capable of appreciating any new place, making a social circle there and adapt to their new environment.          

That said, it is a good time to look back at all the things I like, nay love about Switzerland and Basel (some may apply to most European countries as well).   

I would move from general observations to personal experiences. I would also draw a comparison to India from time to time, and this is not meant to suggest that life in India sucks. Switzerland is hardly the size of Goa, and it is not possible to replicate anything and everything that is good in a European country with far less complexities than India. I could write a book on what I love about India, but it would feel so much better to hear an outsider’s appreciation.          

This is just to have a light-hearted banter,  and to appreciate the good things a foreign county has offered me so far.          

A study in tourism       

The first thing that struck me upon arrival in Zurich, and once I got into a shuttle train that connects the airport to the station, is a sound. It is a sound that I found weird for a nano second, and then broke into a laugh; thankfully it was pretty much the same reaction for other first time Swiss visitors in the train.          

It is the loud moooooooooo sound of a cow, with the sounds of bells to boot! The Swiss let you know without wasting any time, that they are going to play up to the image of the land of cows, cheese, and chocolate 🙂 . It happens only in Switzerland!          

To state that the Swiss are among the most tourist friendly in the world, would be an understatement. This is a country that knows how to market its splendid natural beauty and culture well, but also knows how to expect, plan for, and meet every potential need of every kind of traveler. And do that in a friendly way.          

It is possible to take a train to some random town, land up at the tourist office without a clue on what to do and where to stay, and put your trust in the friendly and well-informed staff at the tourist office.          

It is possible to land up on some trekking trail somewhere, lose your map, and still find your way in  a short while without any fuss.          

If you have more time to plan, you could use a plethora of resource, my favorite being Myswitzerland.com, an excellent portal to plan your Swiss travels . We have these very good “Incredible India” ads, but how good is our tourist infrastructure? It is worth pondering.         

Convenient transportation          

It was’nt that long ago, when daily commutes to office meant a good 1.5 to 2 hours jostling for space in a bus, soaked in sweat and dirt and bearing the noise of honking vehicles. This could apply to most Indians, but to Bangaloreans I can only say Hosur Road, and you know what I mean!          

These days I have a 10 minutes’ walk to work, and a few tram stops covered in 10 minutes to get to the city center. It is a luxury beyond my wildest imagination! Most Swiss cities are fairly small by Indian standards and are incredibly well-connected by train, tram and bus. They almost always run on time, and you could plan your journey online using the SBB website, and be assured of a convenient and comfortable ride to your destination.The trams themselves are fairly old and rickety, but that only adds to the sense of the charm.        

The Number 11 tram at Marktplatz

 

The trains are excellently maintained, spacious, and the wide windows ensure a lovely view of the scenery.          

Train entering Locarno station

 

They have a range of passes and offer cards (called Abonements, or simply abo), that make sure that you don’t spend a fortune. The day I landed in Switzerland, I took my friend Vineet’s advice and got a half fare card, which ensures that all public travel in Switzerland is half price for me. Almost everybody here has it, in addition to other Abos, depending on your frequency of travel.   This public transportation is the backbone of their tourism industry, and as somebody who has always relied on public transportation, Swiss life is a dream come true. (For the record I rate the Delhi Metro, and the BMTC Volvo services in Bangalore as close to international standards among cities I have visited, and the Tokyo metro as the best metropolitan transport system I have ever seen, but Switzerland is the most incredibly well-connected country I have been to!)       

Appreciation of the nature and environment          

I wake up every morning to watch a series of programs on HD Suisse, which I would never get bored of watching.   They have a program called “Swiss View”, which is a view from a camera on a plane or helicopter that just moves slowly across the Swiss mountains, lakes, rivers and villages.  There is another program called “Sunrise Earth” which takes you to a farm or a pasture, in the wee early morning hours. There is no music, but the chirping of birds, or mooing of the cows, as you watch the crimson sun rise.          

As I get ready for a big day at work, I listen to a mild and soothing music, or the chirping of birds, and watch breathtaking images of places that are hardly an hour away. It reminds me every day that I am incredibly lucky to live in one of the better looking corners of our incredible planet.  It also brings back very fond memories, of watching the short “Vande Mataram”, or the slightly longer “Mile Sur Mera Tumhara” clips on Doordarshan, way back in the 80s.   

We seem to have very few such clippings on our T.V now that show case our natural beauty. There are few places on earth that can compare to the barren landscape of Ladakh, backwaters of Kerala, colorful desert life of Rajasthan, or the un spoilt beaches on the Konkan Coast.   

How many of us watch the visuals and images on a daily basis, let alone go there?      

This is just one of the many examples to show the appreciation the Swiss have for the land they are blessed with.  

There is very little pollution, garbage littering, cutting down on trees for the sake of industrial expansion.  The lakes and rivers are squeaky clean and the water so sweet to taste.   There is a lot of socializing and partying that happens on the river fronts, or the shores of the lakes. In Basel, we are lucky to have a large and winding Rhine that divides the city into two, interspersed with quaint old bridges. Sitting by the many parks and establishments on the Rhine is a big part of life here, at least in the spring / summer. People take a swim, or wade the waters, but nobody throws junk into the river, or abuses it in any other way.    

They live with a sense of pride for their land, and admiration for its natural resources.        

HD Suisse Swiss view, Wallis:          

Sporty and outdoorsy life         

The Swiss come in various sizes and shapes, but almost all of them get involved with some sort of sports / work out. Most expats here are also bound to do something outdoors / sports oriented, just to fit it, even if you are a lazy bum like me!    

Spring / Summer is usually  a time some for water sports such as swimming / diving, and mountain sports such as trekking / Nordic walking. I am not into water sports, but love the mountains. I did quite a few treks last year, and have started this trekking season last week.          

But the most enjoyable time of my life here was at my tennis club last year (Casino tennis club). Most courts here are clay courts and shut down during the winter, add   most clubs re  – open   around May. It is quite difficult to get into a club, find partners and get slots to play. But once I put in the time, effort and money, and showed some level of skill, I found that people were willing to play with me quite regularly.  

My doubles partner Alex and I , bonded well, and did pretty well at a fun tournament we had at the season end. We even had a poker tournament  and a party to close the season, and by then I knew most members of the club and it was fun. I learnt the rules of Poker that night, and by the time we finished playing the next morning, I won the entire lot of plastic coins. If only that was real money, I would be a millionaire now 🙂  

 I also plan to stay on one of the many mountain huts that are run by the Swiss Alpine Club (SAC).          

Winter life is pretty harsh, and I ended up slouching and putting on a lot of weight. Winter is dominated by skiing and snowboarding. I learnt skiing for the first time, during the New Year holidays, by spending a week at Wengen, Interlaken. It was a bloody thrilling experience, and I did far better than I expected. But it is an expensive sport, and requires tremendous patience and perseverance. The rants of winter life, I would leave for another blog  🙂     

There is so much socializing and fun activities that are usually attached to these sports, such as the Apre skis, that ensure that you have to burn out some calories before you can have some fun. The drinks taste so much better after you have done a ski run, or a set of tennis.           

Trekking trails near Mount Tamara, Ticino

 

 The friendly and respectful Swiss people        

 Now, quite a few expats who might read this, would probably raise their eye brows. Most expats forums here have a section filled with cribs about how difficult it is to make local friends here.          

I would juxtapose that with experiences in other countries where people are more open to talk to you, but equally fast in being intrusive or abusive, or sometimes openly racial.   The Swiss, on the hand, do not come running to talk to you. If you do manage to strike up a conversation, they answer you politely. But it takes a lot of time, effort and perseverance to call a Swiss person a friend. And that is something I actually do not mind, because it’s my nature as well. I am quite open to conversations and interactions, but it takes me a long time to accept some one as a friend. And when I do, they are friends for life. I have made a few Swiss people like that who have been very friendly, helpful, and nice. These are people I would consider friends for life.    

By and large, they are very respectful to outsiders, whatever their private views on immigrations may be. I haven’t come across a single rude, or abusive Swiss person, and given my knack of getting into provocative conversations, that is an incredible record!         

Blending of urban and rural spaces         

Like I mentioned earlier, most Swiss cities are the size and population of small towns in India. So you can imagine how big the villages are! But there is a definitive sense of “Small is beautiful”. A person from a small Swiss village, would typically says he is from that village, and upon prodding mention it is near Zurich. Most Indians, would mention the name of the nearest big city as their place of origin.  Most of these villages have all the facilities you would expect in a big town anywhere: Kiosks or convenient stores, a bus / train / tram station, a few hotels and restaurants etc.          

The cities, towns, and villages blend rather seamlessly as you taken a train out of Basel or Zurich and cross a few stations. A big city is not necessarily an imposing entity, or a crowded and frenetic place. A village is not necessarily a poor place that is in accessible. In many ways, they are proud of their rural and agricultural connections, and it is quite fashionable to live in the country side.         

I would love to live in a Swiss country side, with  a farm, small brook, and some animals. But I can’t even afford that in my dreams now, and console myself with occasional weekend walks to such idyllic places!           

Lively street and public space culture       

There is a place in Basel called MessePlatz. It literally translates to a place for fairs / exhibitions.          

Across  every little town or city in the country, there is always something happening in such places. You have fairs, exhibitions, and shows for all kind of occasions such as celebrating Christmas, children’s day, day for some ethnic groups such as the Turks, or even a sports day. The Christmas and autumn markets and fairs are especially important. That is when the outdoor life drops, and these events that run for weeks together, keep the people on the streets. There is music, food, drinks (Gluhwein – a hot and spicy wine is a must try, if you want to survive the winter!), and people selling their produce.          

Each city / town has its show piece / landmark event. In Basel, it’s the Fasnacht in February. People plan for it for weeks, get up early in the morning with their outlandish costumes, and basically have a colorful street parade for days together. It’s also the time, when the Swiss shed all their reserved nature and go crazy! It has to be seen to believed!     

In addition to these big events, most city squares have some thing or the other going on  every other weekend. That keeps the people to the streets, and when you find yourself bored in spite of all that, it is possible to land up in some small pebble stoned quiet alley, and hear a young musician play his instrument. These are small pleasures in my Swiss life that I am so thankful for!        

Street music on some random carnical day in Neuchatel

 

  Basler Fasnacht:         

I hope I get to stay here a little longer, and I hope life also takes me to other wonderful places around the world. And I hope that till such time I am here, I always appreciate what a foreign country has to offer me, rather than get bogged down by a few minor rants.  

To me, one true test of globalization is when people can move freely from one country to another, and not just find a new house, but make a new home there. I think I have done that here, and Basel is my third home after Chennai & Bangalore.  

I would also encourage my Swiss friends to visit India and enjoy our sense of hospitality 🙂         

Cheers!        

Vasu        

Some further glimpses of my swiss life…         

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P.S: If you liked this post, you may also reading my other posts on life in Switzerland:       

1.  https://vasusworld.wordpress.com/2009/11/15/friends-jazz-rain-bombay/      

2. https://vasusworld.wordpress.com/2010/03/31/light-up-your-cigars-but-not-on-my-face/      

3. https://vasusworld.wordpress.com/2010/04/23/the-singing-sensation-the-ultimate-bathroom-singing-list-the-band/

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THAT face with THAT warm smile….

There is a lady (probably my mothers’s age) I see almost every working day at the restaurant on my campus. She has the biggest, most natural and widest smile ever, and she has the warmest “Halllooo” ever. 

There she is smiling, laughing, & talking cheerfully to her customers 24*7, and in the last six months I have never ever seen her remotely sad or upset. In fact, she would give a huge complex to most characters from a feel good movie. (Remember Rajesh Khanna in Anand, or Roberto Benigni in Life is beautiful?) 

Its incredible how a person can come to work, make a conversation with EVERY customer, and have some nice things to say to everybody. Most days I don’t go to her ice cream and desserts counter (I cant think of any person more suitable to serve you sweet dishes!). We could be having a quiet lunch somewhere in the corner. She bellows a loud “Halllloo’ and in case we missed her, follows it up with a “Guten Tag!” 

Every single day I cross her, she pauses to have a few minutes of friendly banter. She cannot speak more than 5 words in English, and I cannot speak more than 5 words in German. Yet I talk to her daily in a ritualistic way; the same applies to my team mates who lunch with me. On some days when work is stressful, I go and get an ice cream from her and listen to her 200 questions in German about how I am doing. I just nod something silly back, and she pretends she can understand me! No problem in the world appears significant after that ice cream, and it’s got nothing to do with the ice cream  🙂 

Some gestures, people, and smiles permeate all artificial barriers of language / culture / race. 

I consider myself a pretty light hearted, warm,  and occasionally funny person. But I can NEVER have a smile around me all day. Not even if I try to fake it. 

Its incredible how we make a big fuss about celebrities from sports, entertainments, art fields, but hardly stop to applaud the heroes we see in our lives everyday.  To me she is one such hero. In an increasingly cynical world driven by ambition, greed, hatred, stress, and complexity, some people remind you that life is essentially simple and meant to be lived with a smile. 

May her tribe increase!

Cheers!

Vasu

One of the many moral dilemmas we face everyday…

How do you handle beggars in India? What is the  ideal way to handle a problem like that? 

Its something that I have been grappling with for years without having a clear idea what is the best approach. 

You see them everywhere – footpaths, traffic signals, entrance to malls, and they almost always leave me with a lump in my throat. And most of them happen to be children, women, disabled, or elders. 

It’s a reminder for us day in and day out, that whatever economic progress we have made in last few decades has not reached everybody. Or rather, it has not reached most people. 

On one hand, your brain says its wrong for you to indulge somebody who could work and earn his money. It tells you that by giving him free money, you are pampering him  and making him lazy. On the other hand, your heart says that whatever money you make in life is to be shared with the needy.

 I will be candid to admit that all my life I haven’t figured out a consistent solution to this problem

There are days when I have walked past old, weak women because they shoved a plate at my face. In hindsight, I should have given them something. 

On some other days, I have taken any random note from my wallet, given it to the beggar, and walked past. 

On one occasion, I paid a decent amount to a person who appeared reasonably healthy but had 3 hungry children around him. I got food for all of them, listened to their stories, and satisfied my ego that I am a noble man. They were probably never his children and probably never got all the money. I might have helped pander to their laziness. (In the great tradition of Hinduism and all other religions, I should never mention this, but when you moral dilemmas of such magnitude its best to be candid about the good and bad that you have done) 

Another fine day, I came across a man on a wheel chair who begged me to help him with whatever money I can, so he could have his next meal. He promised me to note my address, and pay me back the earliest he could. I made up my mind to give him whichever note was the first I drew from my wallet. I drew a 500 rupee note, and it was his lucky day. He refused to accept such a large amount. I insisted, and felt that ego gloat again. But when the realization dawned that I cant give a 500 to every beggar I see, and I am not going to help his cause in the long run (damn that brain again) I felt terrible. I would have probably been wiser to give a 10 rupee to 50 beggars. And there are thousands of beggars I haven’t given a single rupee to and walked past rudely before they trap me and play on my emotions. 

And sometimes I feel terrible when I donate huge amounts in temples. Would I have been better off not bribing god for my happiness, and feeding another hungry man. Or, would I rather leave it to god? 

One beggar I saw at Times Square, New York, held up a banner that read” I need $s;  for beer, for drugs, for cigarettes, for sex”. I was shocked beyond comprehension. Even in the lives of the have nots, some are luckier, some are crazier, some more deserving, some less. 

The brain says that the world is unfair, and unjust. A very convenient word for that is Karma. The heart refuses to accept. And this conflict can sometimes leave me crazy. There are no easy answers, but I would like to hear from those reading this, as to how you deal with individually. 

Cheers!

Vasu

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