Posted by: Mark Nielsen | July 2, 2009

Howling at a Swiss Moon

Might not get to a computer for several days; so this is a long two-part post.

Wednesday, July 1

Quiet night our last night in Zurich, except for the part when we got lost (though we were only 3-4 blocks from our hotel). And the part when Sue got nervous about the chicken kabab she’d ordered. And the part when Mark went on a fruitless hunt for a simple bottled softdrink in the middle of downtown Zurich, plenty of restaurants and bars, no grocers or 7-11s.

Today (Wed.), took the 11:37 train with Aunt Barbara from Zurich into the Alps, arriving in St. Moritz about 4pm. Like a precise Swiss clock, the train left the station at exactly the time published in the schedule. Now at 4:15 I’m sitting in an aluminum chair on the balcony of Hotel Laudinella (aka “Hotel Lark”), watching pouring rain come down on a 9000 foot mountain just around the corner. It’s also washing down some of the more interesting architecture we’ve seen thus far. Here in one of the classic ski resort towns in all of Europe –host of the 1928 and 1948 Winter Olympics– there’s an eclectic mix of styles: 19th century darkwood and carved Nordic, 17th century French (Provincial?), Early 20th Art Deco and functional, clean-lined modern. Some of the houses and hotels in this region are also known for a special style of painting –part graffiti, part family crest, geometric designs and calligraphy, all writ large, but in subtle beige or earthtones on a white or cream-colored background.

This region is identified most often as The Engadin, but informally as “ibex country”, after the Capra (as in Frank) Ibex, a deerlike animal with long, slightly curved, tubular, studded antlers. The Schweiz-Deutsch word for it is “steinbock”, and this state even has this stag on it’s flag. All of this suggests that the Swiss are regionalists, not unlike Americans, and are proud of their local customs. Also, around here, they hunt them (umm… the ibex, not the customs).

On the balcony in the next stack of the hotel are two Asian women, and below them, an Indian man having a smoke. Saw lots of foreigners, and lots of smokers, when we were in Zurich, but also lots of local people on bicycles, on skateboards, or doing other healthy things. Tons of electric streetcars there, too –and people of all classes, even the bankers, seem to use them.

Speaking of banks, exchange rate from U.S. Dollar to Swiss Franc is about 1 to 1 now, though Barbara says it was at two or even three to one just a few years ago. Our tough luck. But at least we’re here finally.

There’s a German/French/English New Testament in our bedside nightstand, and there’s nary a person in this whole town who speaks just one language. Even the big group of Chinese that came through the lobby with their guide probably speak two dialects of Chinese. And of course everyone can say “Coca Cola”. Ugh. I’ve sworn off all things American for the duration of this trip. Why eat, buy or do what I can get back home? (And cheaper.)

We’re here two nights, then on to Lugano by bus through the Italian (or Romanische-speaking) part of Switzerland. Barbara says this German/Italian hybrid dialect is dying, cuz all the kids want to learn and use English (which itself has overtaken French as the international language, in our aunt’s opinion). On the free shuttle we took here from the train station, a German or Swiss pre-teen boy got on wearing a half-cocked Yankees cap and a full-blown swagger. Ah well, he’s Swiss — he don’t know any better when it comes to baseball.

Looking forward to a hike or two here in the mountains, and around the gorgeous lake (hint: it’s in a gorge). Maybe I’ll enjoy some fondue as well. (Yikes! Can a macho American male say he wants fondue without sounding like a metrosexual? …Oh, who cares?!)

Wed 10:45pm

Ich bin im der hotel bar, mit der name Keller Bar (it’s in the basement, as in cellar, which is also the origin of Sue’s Aunt Barbara’s surname – her ancestors were vineyard owners.) There’s a rapper spitting in German on the stereo here, and I’m drinking Calandra (?) Edelbrau, a local brew. Remember “Edelweis”, the flower and song… well this is the area Austrian Maria escaped to in Sound of Music, and the little edelweis flower is on all kinds of products, and easily found in the valleys. Edelbrau is a lightish lager, not bitter, but not as rich as a Sam Adams or Harp.

After serving me, the bartender and her barback rushed away. They acted like there was a fight, or a big football match they had to see, but when she returned briefly to get some champagne, she said they had broken away for “mangiare” (to eat).

So now I’m here literally alone in this bar, surrounded by liquor from the four corners of the earth. Okay, three… Asia is severely under-represented here. These Swiss are very loose, trusting people. They seldom lock their bikes, they don’t guard their liquor, and they leave 400-year-old carved wooden chests out where any Joe can set their drink or their cigarette on it. Then again, many of the hotel staff here are Italian, so maybe they’re just being more derelict in their duties than a true Swiss would.

Before she left (with the bartender), I asked the well-dressed African-looking woman down the bar, in English, how many languages she spoke. She counted with her fingers, then said “Five” quite matter-of-factly. Clearly, this city is one of the world’s major playgrounds, though judging by the Versace and Pucci stores in its small downtown (or should I say uptown, since it’s up the hill from us our more modest hotel), it’s not for the faint-of-wallet.

Now they’re back, but the barkeep is speaking to a patron, or a local. She addressed me in Swiss-German when she came back, and I managed to grunt out “Ich spreche keine Deutsch”, as my host helped me to remember. She was probably the first person in three days not to know right away that I’m American. Must be the low lighting in here, and the fact that I know just enough German to order a beer (as long as I can also point).

The n-tv news show on the tv to my right is turned down, but I see from the text crawl below that 97-year-old fave actor Karl Malden died today. He of the large nose and even larger heart. Stanley’s more reserved pal in Streetcar. General Bradley to George C. Scott’s Patton. Mentor to Michael Douglas on Streets of San Francisco. So long, Karl. As our Irish compatriots say, may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.

11:30 now, and the bar activity is kicking up a notch: five twenty somethings, with the two new hipsters in horn-rims next to me ordering vodka martinis. So now I’m an old fish in new water, but I am not entirely out of my element.

Nevertheless, after I nurse a second beer, I’ll make a quick pass through the small park next to the hotel, then on to bed. Barbara and Sue tease me about not getting tired, but I don’t mind. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” as my mentor Warren Zevon once sang.

Speaking of American music and mentors, it’s everywhere around here. Last night The Boss played Zurich. Joe Jackson will be here in a couple weeks (though he’s really a Brit), and I hear the likes of Lenny Kravitz and see posters for the Bonus Bothers tour (thass Jonas Brothers, for you tweens and sober people ou there) wherever the crowds can be found.

Meanwhile down here in the cellar, I recognize just four whiskeys on the shelf: Canadian Club, J&B, Chivas Regal (there are no kings left in America, and Queen Liz is a figurehead in Canada),… And of course, Jack Daniels. (No accounting for taste… Unless you look at great marketing.) There are other whiskeys, just unfamiliar to me. They don’t even have the good Irish brands like they did at the piano bar in Zurich: Glennfiddich, Glenlivet, GlennMiller (kidding…), and my beloved Bushmill’s. Nor Johnnie Walker, nor bourbons of any kind. Somebody needs to teach these polite sons of staid Swiss bankers how to drink! (But not me. I’m driving, er, walking, …or would you accept “crawling up the stairs”? In other words, my anti-depressants fuzz up my buzz considerably.)

On the other hand, I feel okay. Maybe I’ll climb the nearest mountain and howl at the moon. This is the mentoring that *I* have to offer. This is the true gift of Americans upon the world stage: audacity! Any of you pups ready to make some noise?

Though the bar babe just changed the stereo from swaying, easy Jamaican/German dub music to pounding house music, acid jazz and agitated high-voiced pixies singing updates of bad lounge music in English. That’s my cue to check out the bocce courts outside and start my long, low howl.

(But not before the lights go down and the female horn-rimmed hipster gets a tiramisu with a sparkler stuck in it, and a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” -in broken English- from the gathered and growing crowd. Nice country you got here, kids.)


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