Learned Something Important Today
I learned something real important today, namely that you don't put in regular gasoline into a diesel engine car, it doesn't like it at all! This was just the starting point of a Wednesday where nothing seemed to go right. It started off harmless enough - we bid goodbye to Lucerne - it's a beautiful town, but just a bit too big for us natural folks. We drove down to the end of the Lake Lucerne for some breathtaking views of mountain, lake, farm, cow, sheep, church in one easy glance. Along the way, I stopped to get gasoline/petrol, and the sign said 1.13 which sounds ok unless you understand that is 1.13 per _liter_ not gallon. And you wonder why Europeans are such bicycle and small car enthusiasts!
Anyway, I filled up half the tank not knowing it was wrong type of gasoline, and the next time we stopped the car to take photos, the car would not restart. Stuck halfway between Lucerne and Kussnacht am Rigi. So the nearest building was a distillery about a 100 yards away. Walked in to use the telephone and the two folks in the office spoke no English. Not only that, their Swiss accent was so strong that it was making my meager capacity for the German language more difficult. But as I spoke to one fellow Herr Freddie Mueller, I had no choice but to get down to some serious communication. Freddie made some calls for us to the car rental place, and the circus was now in full gear. The phone number on our invoice was incorrect, he got the new number and was told that the local office has no cars and the service guy was on lunch till 1:30, all this is in rambling German. He offered us to drive us to the nearest town, but since this is Switzerland, the nearest town was only 500 meters away and we walked to town to have lunch.
After lunch in the Swiss Chalet restaurant, which has no relation to Motel 6-like Swiss Chalet hotel chain in the U.S. - it was a real Swiss Chalet - we went back to try the car and it started! So we drove to the distillery and told Freddie Mueller and his female sidekick that "mein auto springt an" (it started up!), but we'd wait for the repair truck, as we weren't sure what was wrong. Freddie told me in our new mode of communication that he seriously doubted that the service truck would ever show up, and that there was an Audi garage two km away.
Having wasted about three hours already, it was our fateful decision to take Freddie's advice and have this place look at our Audi. Freddie gave me directions to the garage which were very complicated, but I managed to understand, and we drove to the place, and the car stalled in an intersection on the way. It managed to start up right away and we drove to the Audi garage.
The proprietor, one Rudi Ecker, spoke as much English as Freddie with the same Swiss accent, and I finally figured out that telephone call was "ruhe" in German, so I asked to use the phone, and the local rental agency told me the same story as what Freddie said, but that I should call the main office in Frankfurt Germany so that they can call the Zurich office so that they can send a tow truck to us and we could ride back to Zurich and get another car. Yeah, right.
So while I'm trying to start the car, checking under the hood for something wrong and Anne manning the telephone that Rudi was kind enough to let us use, in walks the next set of players, Gunther the tall, good looking Swiss Air pilot and his brother, looking to buy a used car. After about a half hour, Rudi asks Gunther if he speaks English, which he replied yes, and then asked him what kind of problem these two American bozos were having with the car.
So Rudi has one of his mechanics come look at our care, with all sorts of electronic testing machinery. Gunther comes outside and we strike up a conversation. We talk for awhile about his vacation in California during the height of El Nino, and he makes the off the cuff comment that these Audi's have really good diesel engines. Anne's eyes get real wide, and she asks, "Phil, what kind of gas did you put in the car?"
As Buckminister Fuller once said, that a problem totally understood is one that is half solved, we had our solution. I felt like an idiot, but relieved that there was nothing innately wrong with this fine piece of German engineering. Gunther tells the mechanic the lowdown, and we figure out that he has to put out all the gas in the tank since I filled half the tank with the wrong petrol.
So we all push the car in the garage, and as my wife slowly starts developing a crush on the handsome Gunther, we converse about diesel engines. Usually there is a signature "ping" to diesel engines in the trucks in the US, which of course you hear _outside_ of the truck. Unfortunately, I never heard my engine from the outside - remember this is a finely built piece of German machinery, and it's quiet as hell on the inside. Moreover, every diesel car I've ever been in, in the US, has a sign on the dashboard, such as "Use only diesel fuel". Gunther asks me to look at the inside of the gas tank door, and there's the sign! Yes, it is always my first choice to find out about the innate details of all my automobiles. Of course, this doesn't hide the fact that my assumption that this was a non-diesel auto was my fault, costing us six hour and the repair costs of sucking out all the gas from the car at the VAG Audi/VW Garage of Kusshnacht am Rigi.
So as Gunther and his brother take leave of us, his brother neatly sums up the whole situation with his Swiss accent:
So Anne and I spend time in their auto showroom, reading all sorts of magazines, such as GQ in German, with real naked girls, quite unlike the US version. Now here's where it gets real scary - I asked Rudi to use the toilet, and he points me to the door. I'm fully expecting the usual greasy pig sty that is so common of most US truck stop, repair garage and service station bathroom, but _this_ bathroom was cleaner than our bathroom at home. This is not right. My world is being rocked here. Of course, the Swiss, and Germanic folks in general, are renowned for their cleanliness, and this was no exception.
I've been looking for dirty place for this whole trip, like under the bed in our hotel room, or in the corners of the room. Clean. No dust. No grime. Wow. You see people cleaning their sidewalks all the time here - we even saw one guy sandblasting his concrete wall today, and I certainly appreciate cleanliness. As long as it doesn't get to the Jerry Seinfeld/NY Jewish male neurotic stereotype, it's great. We Americans could take on the Swiss attention to detail.
Like this morning for breakfast. Our breakfast tray included a tiny little red garbage pail with wheels and a lid, so we can dispose of our jam packets and milk containers. It was such a cool little toy I wanted to steal it.
Anyway, we finally took off for Interlaaken at 5pm instead of noon due to our little adventure, but it wasn't a loss as much as it could have been -we met some very, very considerate Swiss citizens along the way who helped us instinctively, and the weather was cloudy for most of the day. And as soon as we started to drive to Interlaaken, (after, of course, stopping at the first gas station to fill up on DIESEL gas), the clouds broke and we were treated to a most incredible drive through high passes of the Bernese Oberland mountain range.
The Alps have this distinctive look to them -they rise out of the flat valley floor at very steep angle. It was a breathtaking ride to Interlaaken, accentuated by autumn's peak of foliage, with yellows and browns and red in contrast to the greens of the evergreens and the whites of the snow capped peaks. Some of the areas reminded me of Yosemite Valley in California -they seemed to have a very similar structure. We finally made it to our hotel at 7pm, caught an early dinner, and majorly crashed early.
I did wake up in the middle of the night however, as part of a regular pattern -the Swiss style of bedcover is a down comforter fitted with a large sheet pouch, which is simple yet elegant looking. However it can get very hot under this comforter, which would be great in January, but not right now. They also specialize in these giant goose-down pillows which must exhaust an entire flock of geese.
Interlaaken Thursday Oct 15
We're now at the Swiss Inn in Interlaaken, an inn highly recommended by Lonely Planet, and it is one of the few bargains that we've found in Switzerland so far. Everything is very expensive here, particularly meals - hard to eat breakfast for under 10 bucks per person, unless you can live on a croissant and a espresso till noon, which Annie and I cannot do. We'd be in a hypoglycemic stupor real soon if we ate the meager European standard breakfast.
I awoke this morning to the sounds of a woman sweeping the hotel sidewalk of 10 or so leaves that have managed to escape the natural order and disturb the purity of the concrete sidewalk. She was using a reed-like broom that I've seen mostly underneath witches in Halloween posters. I opened up the balcony door of our hotel room and was treated to a magnificent splendor of Alpine beauty. Interlaakken is surrounded on all side by very tall peaks, many of which are full of a variety of pastel foliage colors. Since this is one of Anne's favorite things (foliage watching), we were both enjoying the sights.
After a breakfast of pork-grease fried scrambled eggs (hey, when in Rome...actually it's virtually impossible to avoid the pork and beef based Teutonic culture), we headed out to the to Alpine town of Wengen, which is in the highlands and is overshadowed by the giant glacier and snow capped peaks of the Bernese Oberland, with names such as Jungfrau and Eiger, as in the movie The Eiger Sanction.
Wengen is a resort ski town on the side of a cliffed valley that is also very, very reminiscent of Yosemite Valley - in fact this valley has a waterfall similar in size and location as Yosemite's Bridleveil Falls. Cars aren't allowed in Wengen so you must get out of your car at a town called Lauterbrannen and take one of Switzerland's most famous icons, a mountain train, to Wengen. This is, of course a real treat, as the railway is a modern miracle of Swiss engineering -the amount of effort of tunnel and bridging and mountain track layout is truly impressive. And of course, the trains are _always_ on time.
The drive to Lauterbrunnen and train ride up to Wengen was a breathtaking start to one of those days where it feels like you entered a magical sphere. There was a postcard quality view every five minutes and Anne and I burned through about 5 rolls of film (after a while you do get more selective of your shots). One trail hugged the edge of the cliff and Anne and I could look down several thousand feet below to a most beautiful green valley, held in on both sides by sheer rock walls with cascading waterfalls, and terminated by a 10,000 foot mountain. The outskirts of Wengen are dotted with quaint cottages and farms with flowered balcony and colored shutters, just like you would imagine it should be.
But one very wonderful positive that I noticed was the deafening stillness. Now, since Wengen is only about 4500 ft above sea level, we were not having any "rocky mountain high" of oxygen deprivation. This in contrast, was a definite body feeling that we were distant from any localized psychic field generated by the minds of people in close proximity. Even though Interlaaken is a small and friendly town, being off in the mountains away from the masses of mankind, gives you a clear insight as to why sadhus and yogis head for the mountains - the stillness due to the absence of the static buzz of thousands or millions of mind-thoughts is a definite advantage (I heard recently that people average 50,000 thoughts per day, but don't know how exactly they came to this figure). Now, it doesn't mean that you are bound to have a quiet mind if you live in the mountains, but there is something about the "collective-karma" of shared living spaces, be it a small town or large city, that can add to the complications of mind and foster neuroses. And not that being in nature per se is the key, it has it's own drawbacks, such as the creating a tendency to become a bit too earthbound and bovine, but it is still a very, very, very good thing to get away regularly and let the earth "ground-out" the psycho-emotional static built up in your body from living in the psychic field of human communities.
Friday October 16
We were going to leave today to go to Lugano on the Italian/Swiss border, but Annie and I love this area so much, we decided to stay at our hotel in Interlaaken for the rest of this Swiss vacation and take day trips from home base.
Today we visited Grindewald, another small town in the Bernese Oberland, and a major ski area in winter. But it was fairly quiet now, which pleased us to no end. As today was also totally cloudless and windless, it was one of picture postcard kinds of places, with colorful hangliders dotting the sky. In contrast to today, the big mountains of the Eiger and Jungfrau were totally clear, revealing their glacial top and more surprisingly, revealing a phenomenal network of Swiss trains and cable cars that can take you just about anywhere you want to go (provided you have the bucks - they're not cheap, but they're plenty reliable and well maintained - you get what you pay for!).
In the afternoon we went to Murren, which is one of the higher elevated towns in this area. Like Wengen, no cars are allowed, and in fact, there are no roads leading into Murren, so one has to take a cog railway that goes up the side of a 45 degree mountainside. The train is built to work at 45 degrees, with the compartments of the train connected at an angle. Once you get to the top of the mountain ridge, you board a conventional train that takes you to the town of Murren, winding through the mountainside with spectacular views, especially in the afternoon, when the sun is hitting the mountains perfectly. Similar to Wengen and Grindewald, it seems like 75 percent of the building in Murren are either hotels or guesthouses. Again burned up a bunch of film today.
But now we're in a groove, buying lunch at the Migros supermarket to make Truthahn (turkey) sandwiches, with mayo that comes out of toothpaste-like container, another great idea. Migros also has a restaurant, which has the best deal in town. We're Migros devotees, fer sure. And each day we spend here, it's a trip to yet another beautiful place on earth. Which of course, is important since this is no longer a vacation, it is now a mission! As I tell Annie, "Why? Because we're the Grindewalds!" Something Jerry Seinfeld might point out
I'm surprised to see the presence of the Swiss army in all the towns that I've visited, which confuses me. What's the deal with the Swiss army anyhow, and why don't any of them have guns? Do they fight with those little red knives that have the scissors and toothpicks in them? And why does Switzerland need an army anyway? No one has invaded Switzerland for innumerable centuries. So what's the deal here? I don't get it!