Swiss Casinos and Lax Borders

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Europe » Switzerland
August 12th 2009
Published: August 12th 2009
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Well Toto, we're definitely not in Kansas anymore! Yep, Europe is fairly different from the Himalayan region. From the $7 small hot chocolate at Starbucks to the fancy cars to the unlimited water and electricity supplies, it is a change. The first time I saw someone jogging here I looked around to see who was chasing them and came to realize that men stopped with their backs to the road were taking pictures, not urinating. Plus, the amount of exposed skin and public displays of affection/groping were quite startling after the more conservative environments in which I'd been; it makes me feel a little bit like a prude, but I miss some of the more restrained/appropriate (depends on your viewpoint) behavior. I have also had to become accustomed to the custom of kissing everyone both upon meeting and departure. Here, they kiss each person 3 times on each cheek, which at large gatherings can take quite some time - and they wonder why the folks here are often running late!

My trip from Kathmandu to Geneva was surprisingly easy, and really took much of the "independent" out of independent traveling. When I left Nepal, I was given a lift to the airport on the motorcycle. This meant that I carried my hiking backpack, for the moment zipped up in one of the duffel bags that I had received, on my back while the driver carried my small backpack across his chest. Balancing the bag on the back few inches of the bike was pretty crucial or else the 44 pound weight of it was liable to pull me off, especially as we went up hills. But we arrived without problem and I set off. I flew first to Delhi, where I had a 14 hour overlay, and then to Zurich and finally Geneva. The only confusion occurred when I was in Delhi. I tried to go through customs but was told that, because I was traveling on to another country, I could just proceed to the next terminal. Fortunately, on the way there, I remembered that I was flying on two separate tickets - one to Delhi and the second from Delhi to Switzerland, so I had to go through customs to retrieve my bag and check it back in. (I'm really glad I remembered this as I suspect trying to retrieve a lost bag from the Delhi airport would be rather difficult.) After a 14 hour layover in Delhi, spent mainly in a waiting lounge that you pay to use as check-ins are prohibited more than 3 hours before departure times, I flew to Zurich and then Geneva, where I arrived at around 9 a.m.. In Geneva, I was picked up at the airport by Irena and Nico and they drove me to their apartment in the old part of the city, a really lovely area. Their apartment is within a block of a large cathedral, whose large bells toll every 15 minute, sometimes accompanied by music on the bells as well. These musical segways, which a few times during the day last up to 5 minutes, even include sections from the song "The Entertainer." The only time that the bells are not enjoyable is Sunday mornings around 9, when they toll loudly and continually for what seems like at least 20 minutes - not in any song or with any variety, just plain tolling. I can only assume that their attitude is, it is a sin not to come to church, so if you elect to stay home, we'll at least make sure you can't sleep in or enjoy the time! This is the only noise I've encountered in a long time through which I could not sleep.

I spent my first day and a half in Geneva in the apartment but finally ventured out for a walk around the old town part of the City, which is very close to the lake and the greenways surrounding it, many high-end stores (there are several rolex stores within a 10 minute walk of the house) and full of interesting and often old buildings. Over the next two weeks, I spent many days walking through the city and visiting several museums along the way. While I definitely enjoyed my tour of Geneva's U.N. headquarters, I can't say I was thrilled by the reformist/calvinist museum. I started out trying to read all the information, I really did, but when we reached the description of the 8th of some infinite number of religious wars (mainly between the catholics and protestants), I realized that my retention level had reached zero; this material is much easier to learn about through Dumas' writings on the subject. Clearly though, this museum has received more than adequate funding - in one room, the written material noted that as the population of Geneva grew, there was a need to build additions to many of the existing houses. To illustrate this point, the exhibit included a three story house on which, when you cranked the lever, the top story pushed up to show the addition of a new floor. Really, I could think of better uses for the money - like an introductory panel that gave some context to the rest of the museum rather than just throwing you into the middle of century-old debates between various forms of religious reformers without clearly specifying which tenants of which religion they were trying to reform. (One good story from the U.N. tour though - in the surrounding park, they have had peacocks since the mid-1800s. Recently, several countries gave a gift of 14 peacocks in order to keep this tradition going. However, a year after their arrival, a fox made its way into the park and consumed half of the peacocks. According to the tourguide, the fox was an unofficial gift so they couldn't determine if it was Swiss or French. Moreover, during the French president's last visit to the Geneva U.N. headquarters, his car hit one of the remaining peacocks and it now has a severe limp, so at this point there are six and half of the birds left. This I can remember, the various players in the reformist movement . . . )

On my first weekend here we drove to a really nice/cute village in France on Saturday for a short hike before stopping to pick up groceries (bulk shopping is much cheaper in France than Switzerland) on the way home. I was very excited about going into France as I assumed it meant getting a new country stamp in my passport. Alas, even though Switzerland is not part of the EU, it and its neighbors still have "friendly" borders, so there are no checkpoints at which to collect a stamp. This was quite a disappointment for me, but I promised not to try to attract attention at the occasional border crossing that bothered to have anyone working at it. Geneva is so well situated to the mountains, both for hiking and skiing, that on Sunday we were able to leave at 4 p.m. and still go for a 3 hour hike before sunset. The mountains in this area are beautiful, but start out steep! (Plus, I'm not a huge fan of the large herds of cows or their bells - as Jaimee and I discovered when we hiked in Switzerland for two weeks, the bells are charming for the first day, and a good guidance system in the dusk/dark, but then they can get pretty annoying.)

The number of small appealing towns/villages outside of the city and in the surrounding countryside, both in Switzerland and France, is impressive. On one day, I took the Swiss train out to the villages of Montreux and Laussane. (To save money, I took the 6 a.m. train, quite painful but at least, when I managed to have my eyes open, I had some good mountain views, including of Mount Blanc.) In Montreux, there are several very nice walks. First up the steep, windy streets to the old part of the town, in part to see the architecture but also for the great views down to the lake and over the mountains. Next, after coming down said steep section (oy, my knee!), I walked down to the lake and then 3.5 kilometers around it to reach a famous castle, built by the Savoy family on a large rock near the shore of the lake and later visited by Lord Byron, who did a Sophia Hawthorne and carved his name onto one of the cellar columns. Most of the way around the lake was bordered by beautiful plantings and flowers, quite enjoyable. The castle was well worth the visit, and I recommend the audioguide, but wandeirng by oneself around dark and large castle basements, which were formerly used for prisons and torture, was a tad disconcerting, a bit reminiscent of my time in the Paris catacombs. On the way back from the castle, I passed, sitting right on the edge of the lake, a casino!!! Before I left on this trip, Jaimee had given me some money, part of her winnings from our Las Vegas trip, that she called my "pocket full of sunshine," to use for something enjoyable. I figured, what better than head into the casino!

Apparently, noontime is not the "happening" hour for Swiss casinos; it was basically me and a bunch of chain-smoking senior citizens and the tables were not yet open. But that was fine with me, I prefer the machines - plus at these, you could bet up to $5 per hand, more than enough for me. After an hour, thanks to roulette and slot machines, I was up $6!!!! Now, I know this may not seem like a big deal, but as Jaimee and Hanh know (and anyone else who may have been to a casino with me), I have never broken even, let alone made a profit. With the advice of my sister ringing in my head, I decided to walk away while "up." As I was walking back towards the train station, I debated what to purchase with my winnings - obviously it should be something memorable and long-standing to commemorate the gift from Jaimee and my good luck. I first thought of a jar of nutella, after all, the effect of that is quite long lasting, but not particularly visible as I rarely walk around bare-assed (although I could follow Jaimee''s suggestion and just wear tight pants). Instead, I settled on a cheeseburger from McDonalds (now I can think fondly of Jaimee when I need a coronary bypass) and saved the remaining $3.50; with this, I am sure I can extend the trip a bit longer😊 I finished this auspicious day with a visit to Lausanne, which includes the Olympic Museum, worth a vision even for folks that are not avid sports fans.

On my last full day in Geneva, Irena and I rented bicycles and went out 24 kilometers to one of these towns in France (I''d since given up any hope of getting a French stamp in my passport so wasn't at all surprised or disappointed when the border crossing office was closed). This town is billed as a "medieval village," as it includes at least the exterior walls of a former castle and the exteriors of the buildings and streets, which are closed to vehicles, do not appear to have been modernized in several hundred years. We spent a few hours roaming the village, and eating sorbet, before heading back to Geneva. Fortunately, most of the ride was relatively flat, as hiking does not apparently translate to readiness for steep bike rides. I am going with that explanation, as opposed to that I am out of shape again, as I leave tonight for northern Sweden and two weeks of hiking in the Arctic Circle (and p.s., I somehow managed to miss the customs desk on the way out of the airport so am in yet another country without a stamp for the passport!)


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