Letter from Chur 3

The third in an occasional series.

***

Mornings when walking to the train station, I pass two outposts of Jehovah’s Witnesses. At the first are two women, early thirties, a rolling magazine rack between them. They hold out a magazine that no one takes. Further down the street is an older man, usually alone, also holding out a magazine that no one takes. Around town, afternoons, I see a wandering pair of young American men, dark pants, white short sleeve shirts with ties, name tags. Mormons, of course. I wonder if I can match the young Mormon guys with the Jehovah’s Witnesses ladies? It might not work out since those Mormons aren’t early risers.

***

Downtown, that is old town pedestrian zone where our Swiss residence is, seems to be going the way of French villages. There are boutiques catering to tourists, and any array of salons and services. There are more and more nail, hair, and beauty salons; there is no hardware store, but at least there is a stationary store and also a Denner, which often has cava (brut) on sale. One hair salon has done very well: catering mostly to male hipsters, the shop expanded its’ operations right here in downtown; those beards must required frequent trimming. Elsewhere, an African food store opened and closed within six months, and a gourmet waffle house opened (not an iHOP). There is now a dog grooming salon. In addition there are a number of fashion and clothing related stores: one store specializes in leather and fur, another sells custom clothing, and at least three sell sewing and yarn products.

***

In the oddest of places—the median between highway lanes or hard to get to fields (as seen during my train ride to work)—there are goats grazing. Nearby there is a clue of how they got there, a pen on wheels with trailer hitch. Didn’t Google try something with goats?

***

Wherever there’s piped music, you never know what you are going to hear. John Denver singing ‘Country Roads’ or Cher singing ‘Gypsies Tramps and Thieves’. One song you’ll never hear in Switzerland is “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”

***

It’s a little know fact that the Swiss flag is not a cross, but instead a plus (+) sign, paying homage to arithmetic, specifically addition, Switzerland’s favorite mathematical operation after multiplication, specifically compounding interest.

***

Apartment living has its consolations. In the apartment below me I sometimes hear a women playing the ukulele, and singing ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ or ‘Hotel California’. In the apartment next door, another woman practices the violin. Other times, usually in the morning, walk into the elevator and there’s the slightest hint of perfume; a woman was just in here, she was wearing something enchanting, flowery, crisp, sweet—a nice way to start the day.

***

In his spy satire The Eiger Sanction, Trevanien wrote this about Switzerland:

Jonathan had always found the Swiss to be a money-loving, dour, religious, money-loving, independent, well-organized, money-loving people. These men of the Bernese Oberland are fine mountaineers, always willing to face the rigors and risks of rescuing a climber off the face of a mountain. But they never fail to send a carefully itemized bill to the man they have saved or, that failing, to his next of kin.

***

Rental agreements favor the landlord. Tenants must usually give three months notice and in certain cases, can only move out at the end of every quarter. In most cases you cannot move out at the end of December. If you wish to move out earlier, you must find a Nachmieter (follow on renter) for the duration of your agreement. The one silver lining is that if you find a qualified Nachmieter, regardless of whether your landlord agrees to rent the place, you are not obligated to pay until the end of the agreement, but instead for only as long as you occupy the property.

***

Although the effective income tax rate here is cheaper than in the United States or France, there are some unexpected annoyances. Every year most citizens receive a bill for almost 400Chf, a mandatory fee for the government subsidized radio and television. You can apply for an exemption if you can demonstrate that you, and everyone in your household, have absolutely no means of receiving any sort of broadcast signal, and according to the notice, not only does this include radios and televisions, but also smartphones, tablets, and any sort of computer. In addition, if you own a car, boat, or motorcycle, you must prove that none of these has a radio. The upside is there are no annoying programming losses due to pledge drives.

***

The mountains steal daylight. Here people talk about where to live with regard to the mountain shadow, how much less light you’ll have living in the shade of that mountain. In Chur the sun has just recently gone behind the mountain to the south, the Brambeüsch, for a portion the day. In the morning I’ll see the sun rise, shine for a while, then move behind the mountain, only to appear again briefly in the late afternoon. This long winter darkness will last until March.

Here, in the land of the limited horizon, there is no such thing as staring off into space, because there is a mountain right there. In July I was on the Mediterranean for a while. After mountainous Helvetica, it was remarkable to the point of being peculiar: on calm sea days, the horizon, a perfectly ruled line, stretched to somewhere past forever.

The Swiss are not unlike the gnomes in C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair. When Jill and Eustace, far beneath the surface of Narnia, meet Golg, a gnome and dweller of the deep, he tells the humans he does know how to reach the surface, but doesn’t want anything to do with it:

“Ee-ee-ee!” squeaked Golg. “Yes, I know that terrible road. I will show you where it begins. I will show you where it begins. But it is no manner of use your Honor asking me to go with you on it. I’d rather die.”

“Why?” asked Eustace anxiously. “What’s so dreadful about it?”

“Too near the top. The outside,” said Golg, shuddering. “That was the worse thing the Witch did to is. We were going to be lead out in the open—into the outside world. They say there’s no roof at all there; only a horrible, great emptiness called the sky…”

***

If you take a private ski lessons, do it during the week. Unlike North America, if you take a private ski lesson here, you cannot go to the front of the lift line, but instead must, with your highly paid instructor, go to the back of the line like everyone else.

***

Vapor locks don’t just happen in engines.

Standing at the bus stop after my work out. Wednesday evening, it’s an unexpectedly pleasant late September evening for a day that started rainy and foggy. I’m taking it all in, becalmed by my workout. A new white Audi, with a tricked out chopped exhaust system, comes around the corner, stops in front of me. Guy about my age driving, but he’s très chic, oh wait, molto chic. He looks like the coach for Italy’s women’s alpine ski team. The driver’s side window comes down as he comes to a stop, and in three seconds unleashes a burst of words in Italian that would take an English speaker two minutes to say.

He’s asking for directions. I can respond in three languages, but in their hurry to get out, the three stooges are all caught and wedged together, unmoving, stuck in the narrow doorjamb of my brain. I shake my head, he gets it and drives off. In any case, what might have come out would not have been pretty. It’s a problem I’ve noted before. As soon as the speech command line arguments are language ≠ English, anything is possible, and sometimes the English joins the other two in a menage mit three: “Je understand nicht”.

***

In the fall the cows are brought down from the upper pastures. For several weeks while walking from the Bonaduz train station to my office, or if our office window is open, there’s a background of distant clanging bells.

***

After 10:00 P.M. the hot water in my building is turned down. Late night showers in the apartment building might disturb others in the building. Elsewhere there are rules about what can be done when: hours you can drop your recycling in the bins, no lawn moving on Sundays, and when you can and cannot run appliances in your apartment.

***

There are no good baguettes in Chur, at least coming from any of the bakeries. The last one I got resembled a baseball bat. Best are the pre-made, packaged loafs from the bread section of Coop, the kind you heat up in the oven.

***

There’s a good bit of dumping on France by the people I’ve met here: it’s dirty, trains don’t run on time, the French hardly work. That’s fine. Stay in Switzerland. Stay in Germany. Stay in Austria. I like France. And given what I’ve come to accept as a contrarian aspect to my personality, the more people dump on France, the more I can’t wait to get back there.

More than any other place in the world, France is the future. A former world power, now trying to resolve a number of seeming dichotomies: a white Christian population and with an influx of those who are not; a pretty good social system challenged by neoliberal economic pressure; balancing a sense of national identity while belonging to a larger union.

If France makes it, the world has a chance.

It’s unclear what will happen in the United States, but as long as the minority continues to impose their will on the majority, it’s hard to be optimistic. That sort of thing is harder to do in France; no political system is ideal, but some systems are less unjust than others.

***

For a day or two September got mixed up and thought it was November: the month began cold and rainy. Suddenly the days felt shorter, as if winter was already here. But then the weather report seemed to change hourly: first the next four days were to be cool and rainy, then only the next two days, then twelve hours later, the month came to her senses. It’s been some of the nicest weather I can remember. From my office I could see the autumn sunlight on the rocks, soft, velvet, an Alpine stillness that for a moment feels like eternity.

All month the days were sunny, the evenings cool.

On one particularly wonderful day, a gaggle of hot air balloon were leaving Laax, ascending into a sky so blue it made your heart ache, and floating away to the northeast.

It continued into October: late in the day, the setting sun illuminated the side of a mountain, silver grey textured rock. There is enough moisture in the air to give it a grainy texture, an old, low ISO photo.

The snow is now on the upper reaches of the mountains, and the rest of the way down to the valley floor are the browns of the bare trees, greens of the conifers, and orange rust of the leaves that haven’t yet fallen.

Leave a reply