November 11, 2018

Letter From Chur 2

The second in an occasional series. Once again written E.B.White style.

I knew things were different here on my first visit just about a year ago, I arrived at a very small town for my interview. As I got off the train, I had to take an underpass walkway to get to the other side of the tracks. The train station and environs were already very clean, but nonetheless halfway down the stairs there was a worker, dressed in heavy duty reflective green/yellow pants and top, with a power washer hosing down the stairs. Just to underline the obvious: this tiny community has the resources and desire to make sure the steps at the underpass at the train station are kept quite clean.


This is the land of gadgets: Swiss army knives (the archtypal gadget), Leki poles, Jura coffee machines, mountain bikes with motors, and transformer style backpacks.

The Leki poles are too much. If you are old or have bad knees or are descending a steep trial, then Leki poles may be used. Otherwise, if thirty years old and healthy and walking through town and alternating pole plants on the pavement, you are a dork. My American friend in Montpellier, Kurt, a sometime mountaineer, broke up with a woman over this very issue: gratuitous leki poling. They were going on a climb, but the approach was just an easy hike. Nonetheless the soon to be ex-girlfriend poled her way there. Kurt concedes there may have been reasons other than her Leki poles, but that event was certainly the piece de resistance.

If I write a book about Switzerland, Leki Poles will be the title.


Similar to the gadget fetish is the adoration of fall and winter clothing and accessories. It is a phenomenon I also saw in Montreal when fall came. For the Swiss, the slightest hint of cool weather is an excuse to dress in scarves, layers of fleece and nylon, wool coats and alpine gear, to show off their cold weather plumage. Warm weather is unwelcome because there are no opportunities to wear all those clothes.

Me—I want to remain in flip flops and shorts for as long as possible, and will do soon even at the risk of hypothermia.


On the 6:48AM train from Chur there’s always a guy sitting in the same car in the same seat, eating yogurt with muesli from a jar. As he finishes, there’s the sound of the spoon against the bottom of the jar, a crescendo of quick strokes at the end as he finishes getting the last little bits. He’ll get off at the Emswerk stop, and works at the Ems Plant, making high performance polymers (according to the sign out front). I think he’s been taking the train forever, and will always be there.


Things that go Swiss: cheese, army knives, Family Robinsons, balls (the exercise kind), Miss Hot Cocoa, Italian Colony wine, watches, papal guards, bank accounts.


The food opportunities differ from France. There are hard shell tacos here. Suspiciously, there is no petite-Swiss here (a type of yoghurt sold in France). There are a lot of Italian wines, and Spanish wines are very expensive. Irish whiskey (e.g. Jameson) is expensive, but English whiskey (e.g. Johnny Walker Red) is not. In the food store there are entire aisles given over to chocolate and pasta. Here in Chur fresh fish is brought in every Tuesday and Saturday. Happily there is an excellent, if expensive, Asian store here.


Moving here has been incredibly easy compared to moving to France. A lot of this is due to the support provided by my company: they make it easy to tackle any administrative or logistical issues: government visas, health insurance, housing etc. If there’s a problem, a call to Bianca in human resources points me towards a solution. The move here has made me appreciate all the effort overcoming the many hassles and annoyances we dealt with when moving to France, most of which fell to Annie, because of her French.


Somewhere in the mountains of Switzerland there is a factory that produces tall, well educated, multi-lingual, competent, and very good looking, brown haired professional women. They dress casually and wear designer eye glasses. It is wonderfully stunning. They make Switzerland run. They are in engineering and finance and sales departments. If you’re a guy or gal, twenty-five to thirty-five years old, single, and with prospects, get over here.


Down in the streets of Chur, there is a place called Tom’s Beer Box, which has beers from all over the place. It it a hipster hangout. It is painfully hip. It is….yes…tragically hip. All the guys, every single one of them, has a longish beard, an intentionally obscure t-shirt, tattoos, maybe some flannel, and again, an obscure baseball cap. You can’t tell the difference between them. They’re like some splinter Amish cult gone over to the dark side. It’s more homogeneous than a WASP country club in Connecticut in the 1950’s.

My co-worker, let’s call him Fred, was once accosted by hipster, who wanted to know what kind of pants Fred was wearing. To be clear, Fred is not a poser: he’s back country skier, mountaineer, and geologist who has done remote field work for energy companies from the deserts of Mexico to the Arctic Circle. I’m not sure what Fred told the hipster—Fred had on a pair of Carhartts—I think best would have been to say the pants were by Ralph Lauren.


In Switzerland women did not get the right to vote until 1972, and in some cantons this right was delayed until 1980. There’s a good chronology here. At the sports club, announcements about the child care schedule always begin “Dear mothers”.


My German was never very good, and has been dormant since 1984. It’s kind of coming back. For some reason many Swiss, hearing my German, think I am Dutch.


In case any of the Dutch friends read this, here’s a surprisingly un-Swiss sign I saw here, a sign they can appreciate: Beer is the reason is I get up every afternoon.


If you’re dining out, the only affordable drinking option is beer. When pouring wine or spirits, the thrifty Swiss server observes the exact amount being poured, down to the molecule, and it is a remarkably stingy pour. It’s really depressing and so different from France. The cost of one non-beer alcoholic drink is about the same as a full bottle of that same in the store.

Nonetheless I’ve ventured out three times in search of martinis, with varying degrees of success. The first time, at a place called Barbar, I made sure to explain clearly exactly what I wanted. The confusion can from the possible double meanings of the word Martini: from Italy there a bottle beverage called Martini, a red and white vermouth, both rather sweet, and this is generally what Europeans think of when you say Martini. So I explained to the bartender exactly what I wanted, he went off and found a book, spent a few minutes reading it, then a few minutes later produced a rather excellent Martini: bone dry and Kelvin cold. I went through three.

A few month ago I thought I’d try someplace else, so I went to the Hemingway Bar just around the corner. It was not to be. The helpful waitress was unfamiliar with the drink; just to be sure she brought out the gin bottle to show me—it was fine—but she did not have the right type of vermouth, she thought it would be too sweet, but I told her to give is a try, anyway. After serving me and waiting a suitable interval, she asked me how it was. Given her effort, the only polite response was that it was fine. However, she looked a long moment at me, then went into the bar, came back with the gin bottle, and without even asking filled the glass to the top.

A few weeks ago I went back to Barbar. It was the same bartender, and when I asked for a Martini, he asked if I wanted it dry. Reassured by his question, and assuming he remembered me from last time, I assumed I would get the gin drink. I didn’t. It was the still too sweet dryer white Martini. But he made good on it: I told him I had meant the other style Martini, ‘James Bond’, he immediately removed the glass, and made a proper gin Martini. We agreed that in the future, I should simply order a James Bond.


The Swiss get up early, but neither the gym nor pool are open. The morning is not the time for fun or fitness: everyone is off to work.


Coming back from the gym, a mid-60’s year old man gets on the bus. He’s got a chocolate lab, which I immediately want. On his smart phone he’s playing chess. The dog is attentive to his every move. It sites quietly in the aisle, panting, looking around at the people for a moment, but then looking back at the man. Now and then he pulls a treat from his pocket and gives it to the dog. Dogs and chess—how the old pass their time.


Daily, sometimes several times a day, I hear bells and horns.

From my apartment I hear the bells of at least two churches. They sound at about the same time; the first time I hear them during the day is at five in the morning. Certain days, especially Sundays, they sound for longer, several minutes at least. I like the bells. I want to learn more about them and will write more about them.

Then there’s the horns, known as Alpine Horns. You’ve seen pictures of them: about ten feet long with a large bell/chamber resting on the ground, and some joker in lederhosen and felt hat blowing on the other end. In fair weather, in the late afternoon and early evening, a group of eight or so volunteer horn blowers will gather at a square in town, play their somber, dour notes for a few minutes, then pick up and move to another nearby by square, and repeat.

There’s something smug and tribal and sanctimonious about the horns. I can’t say why, but I don’t like the horns. At all. When I hear them and I am in my apartment, I deploy on my own musical counter-measures, quite loud: Madonna, Led Zeppelin, or Blue Oyster Cult are all proper pagan responses.


An alternative working title for the book about Switzerland is Pleastanville, as in the movie about a simple, unreal place.


Today is the 100 year anniversary of the end of World War I. In France and England November 11th the day is known as Armistice Day. Two of the leaders of the free world, French President Emmanul Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel, attended a ceremony in Compiègne marking the end of the war.

Switzerland is bordered by Italy, Austria, Germany, and France, four countries on two sides during the war. Here there are no ceremonies, the day passes like any other. Back in France, Donald Trump was scheduled to attend a ceremony at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery1One of the reasons I am happy to pay … Continue reading, where 2,289 Americans are buried. Trump cancelled his visit. It was raining.

11 November 2018
Chur, Switzerland


1 One of the reasons I am happy to pay taxes: The American Battle Monuments Commission. See

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