through Switzerland as the Haute Route hike banged its gavel down upon me.
OK! I'll admit it. I wasn't really sure on what I was getting into. I was TOO BUSY to research what those who came before me said about the Haute Route. I found out the hard way. Its freaking hard. All that high altitude training I did in Colorado seemed for naught. The HR made me feel as fit as an obese Walmart shopper wheeling around the superstore in an electric cart. It was truly humbling.
Who knew early September meant the onslaught of winter? Complete with White Death on the evenings of the 2nd and 9th. I shivered in my shorts and flip-flops.
This led me to Google the latitude of the Swiss Alps. Surely I must be up near the Article Circle with these wintry temperatures. Nope! I was almost dead on the 46th parallel North, lined up with the Oregon/Washington border, Wisconsin and Maine. States that wouldn't score White Death until a month or so later.
Clearly I had a lot to learn about Switzerland.
Let's start with what I knew prior to my arrival in this mountainous country:
The Swiss make a cheese with holes in it. They don't charge extra for the airy gaps.
They make Army knives with heaps of nifty appliances.
They make fine precision watches. "The name is Bond, James Bond" wears an Omega.
The natives speak more than one common language.
The Swiss had somehow managed to maintain a politically neutral position through both tumultuous World Wars.
The Alps take up a lot of the landmass of Switzerland.
That was most of my Swiss knowledge in a nutshell. Probably more than the average American but not enough to win a Jeopardy game.
So I hit the books and my I Pad. Remember I'm more than a Wandering Hebrew, I Wonder too. Here's what I discovered:
Switzerland is almost the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. There's 8.4 million Swiss people.
They are not part of the European Union, therefore they have their own currency called the Swiss Franc.
The Swiss have a "standing Army" in order to maintain their armed neutrality status. Military service is mandatory. This policy must be working since their last international hubbub was back in 1815.
As I already mentioned in an earlier post, there's four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh.
The Swiss maintain a high standard of living and wealth. Switzerland consistently ranks near the stratosphere on lists other countries aspire to be on.
The Swiss are somewhat isolationists, the country didn't join the United Nations until 2002. Ironically, the Swiss follow an active foreign policy which includes being a broker of peaceful solutions between disagreeing nations around the world.
It's the birthplace of the International Red Cross.
That's some of my book learning.
Here's what I noticed on the ground level as I dreamily walked the Haute Route from Chamonix, France (I was only in France for two nights) to Zermatt.
The Swiss villages are tidy. I never saw trash, graffiti or any homeless or destitute looking people. (Other than me!)
The locals are nice to strangers and each other. Voices are never raised in anger. Everyone acts mellower than the most relaxed Californian Dude.
Contrary to popular belief, the Swiss don't speak as much English as I was led to believe. That's OK. We all managed.
I saw one police officer the entire hike. That was in Zermatt. This didn't bother me since I felt absolutely safe (other than the treacherous trails) at all times. I never peeked over my shoulder.
Upon wandering through the few supermarkets I encountered, (you can learn a lot about the country you are in by this exercise). I found out the Swiss eat metric tons of cheese, mysterious-looking sausages of dubious origins and bread products. They love their desserts and ice cream. Who doesn't? I would stroll around a market for half an hour and only purchase a beer and some fruit. It was THAT interesting.
I walked past countless mountainous hamlets where I half expected an ogre to pop out of the whimsical heavily timbered homes. I would see and smell smoke from chimneys., and other sure signs of humanity, yet I never saw a soul. It was like being on a Disney movie set entitled "This is Switzerland," when the actors and extras were on a break. Where were the inhabitants?
Maybe they were out moving or milking the every present cows.
The young people I encountered were hands down the most polite, respectful and helpful kids I've ever had the pleasure to deal with. I believe their parents instruct them in this manner. "Be nice to old people! One day, you too will be that doddering creaky person asking a simple-minded question." In other words, parents teach Good Karma and the Golden Rule simultaneously. Kudos to all. This Old Man appreciated these simple acts of kindness.
Swiss folks are, for the most part extremely fit and healthy looking. Even the smokers look good! (Approximately 25% of the Swiss inhale cancer sticks). On the average they outlive their US counterparts by 4.5 years. It must be the cheese and all that uphill walking.
In Swiss summary: I will surely return to this Enchanting Country. I'll arrive earlier in the warmer months, and cherry-pick my way through the good stuff. I'll do my homework for a change. There's nothing neutral about the Good Vibes Switzerland exudes.
Presently, I'm a guest of Conrad and Bettina and their good natured children in a Zurich suburb. They are fattening me up for my upcoming Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage. Conrad took me for a plane ride. They are showing me the local sights. They patiently answer my endless stream of simple minded questions. They are pampering and spoiling me. God Bless Them!
One day, I hope they allow me to be their personal tour guide in America's Wild, Wild West. I don't believe they ever ate a breakfast burrito. We can start at the Durango Diner and work our way up from there.
It's been a great experience so far. It's cool to be in Europe.
In case you missed earlier posts