Wednesday, December 7, 2011

¡Viva la Suiza!

So I successfully traveled to Switzerland without too many difficulties. I made it through the airport on time but they stole my deodorant because I had a few more milliliters than protocol would allow. See what the terrorists have done? This is why we can't have small conveniences, like moderate amounts of hygiene products, on airplanes. At least they prevented me from making everyone smell funny. That would have been terrifying. I waited for a while in the airport but it was different than my experiences with American airports. It may have been because I was using the cheap airline flight but I had to stand up in line for a while instead of just waiting in a little lobby area in order to get on the plane. I felt like people were scared that there weren't going to be enough seats for everyone, so they had to jump in line and reserve a spot. After the waiting in line, we waited in the plane for a while. We ended up taking off an hour later than was advertised on my boarding pass. At least the ticket was cheap.

My Swiss friend Ramona picked me up in Basel in her dad's fancy new BMW. We drove into town and then got out for a walk. Switzerland decided that five o'clock was a good time to be dark, which was bad and good; bad because I wanted to see more of the city but good because the city was decked out in beautiful Christmas decorations and lights. We even found Samichlaus, the Swiss Christmas figure that isn't quite as generous as Santa. He also has a sidekick/slave of some kind that is decked out in black (and sometimes black face apparently) that deals out beatings to the bad kids and traps them in his bag to be taken away. Though he is not without his own faults, I think I like Santa Claus better. Which is why I was delighted when a parade of Santa Claus figures on motorcycles rolled through the streets before we left.

We went to Dietwil afterwards and I got to hang out with Ramona's family again. They are super hospitable. Her dad had some friends over for a monthly night of games and wine. They have a game where they have to drink different unlabeled wines and try to figure out the year and country of origin. They weren't very good at it, especially as they went on. They played lots of card and board games during which they kept track of who won. Ramona's dad has at least twenty years of statistics on the games they play on these special nights. He even has graphs. It's actually quite impressive. Ramona, her sister, and I decided to play a series of memory-based games on our own, so as not to screw with the meticulously-kept statistics of her father's games. One game involved building hamburgers. Needless to say, the American won every time.

The next day Ramona and I went to Lucern to make candles. I had never done it myself before, so I figured it would be an interesting activity. It turns out that candle-making is a bit more difficult than I had anticipated. That's not saying much, as I had few expectations, but we had more difficulties than most of the kids there. There are few things more frustrating in life than a kid beating you at making candles. And not just beating you at adding layers of wax to a string but absolutely devastating your self esteem by putting twists and twirls and swirls and all kinds of creative embellishments on their candles. Ours eventually turned out okay but I felt a bit traumatized by the children and their freakishly impressive skills. Thankfully, I got to go to the Christmas Market in Lucern afterward. I got to try different Swiss treats, including Magenbrot or "stomach bread." I'm not sure why it's called that, unless it's because it helps your stomach. I don't think it was made of stomach. That would be interesting. 

Later on, we returned to Dietwil and had more of Ramona's mom's delicious Swiss cuisine. The best part was that I got to eat chocolate mousse for dessert. I need some way to combine the cooking powers of my mom, Beth Anne's mom, and Ramona's mom into one supreme cooker. And then hire them to be my personal chef. After dinner, we went down into Sandro's lair (one of Ramona's brothers), which is a newly-renovated pad that is after my own heart. The color scheme is red, white, and black (good), there is a Blu-Ray player and media server with tons of movies (better), and a projector with a giant screen that comes out and retracts automatically (awesome). We watched a movie about Wall Street with Michael Douglas and Shia LaBeouf, as it was the first movie we chose that was in English.

The next day Ramona's mom took us to St. Gallen to Ramona's university town. Ramona showed me the monastery, which had a gorgeous library and church. I think the original library was founded in the 6-700s but has since been rebuilt within the past few hundred years. We had to wear over-sized slippers over our shoes in order to avoid damaging the old, wooden floor. The library collection sported all kinds of old books about German language, medicine, religion and, for some strange reason, a mummy. The mummy was hanging out in the corner with some sarcophagi. It was an odd contrast to the rest of the library.

Afterward, we walked toward Ramona's university, which is predominantly composed of a modern-looking building. By modern-looking, I mean the unappealing, parking-garage-style building that doesn't strike me as appropriate for a university. It's too industrial. On the bright side, it started snowing a little while we were walking. I was super excited for the snow because Spain has been disappointing in the precipitation department so far. It has been too warm to snow there, unfortunately. 

We decided to have dinner at an American restaurant that Ramona wanted to try. The little courtyard in front of the restaurant had a miniature Statue of Liberty and a bunch of Christmas decorations. They were trying really hard to convince me that they were the real deal when it comes to trying to act American. However, they screwed up when I found a series of books they had for sale at the front of the building. I'm not sure who missed the memo but Ontario is not part of the good ol' U. S. of A. They managed to make up for their shortcomings with a delicious BBQ cheeseburger, though. It's the first burger I've had outside the States that was worthy of being called "authentic American food." Granted, I've only had a couple of others, but the others were simply not American hamburgers. We had vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup for dessert, which was just enough to push me past that point in a typical American dinner where you feel guilty about how much you just ate and you realize that you've done your duty as an American. You can't let all that food go to waste, you have to think of the starving kids.

The next day, we planned to go to a mountain. We even went so far as the base of the mountain before we decided it was a bad idea. Apparently you can either have snow or climb mountains, not both.

We took a train to a small town and watched the snow get progressively deeper and more intense. It wasn't until the bus/van we were taking up to the base of the mountain started sliding around that we got worried. By the time we made it to the base, the snow was in excess of six inches and the wind was punching us unreservedly in the face. I think it was Mother Nature's way of telling us that being on a mountain in this weather is just stupid. We agreed with her. We had a hot chocolate in a little restaurant instead of heading to the top to freeze to death. There was a regiment of Swiss army men in the restaurant, doing what they do best, according to Ramona (absolutely nothing). They were smelly and loud. If only I hadn't had my deodorant stolen...but I did buy some upon my arrival in Switzerland, don't worry. Look how good I smell (but most importantly, look at the beautiful snow):

Last night, we took the train to Rorschach, a small town near St. Gallen, to go to a Christmas party that Ramona's friend invited us to. Ramona and I bought Santa Claus hats and wore them. On the train, we read a newspaper that was talking about how some of the Swiss people were claiming Santa Claus was an imperialist, trashing the Swiss traditions and essentially signalling the end of the world. I became uncomfortable with wearing my hat for fear of being beaten by old, Swiss conservatives. Then I giggled at the prospect of that actually happening. The party was really nice. They prepared all sorts of traditional sweets that are associated with Samichlaus. And this is yet another reason I dislike him: nearly every food item contained, or was, a nut. I ended up eating some bread and mandarin oranges. All of Ramona's friends talked in English in order to accommodate me, which was convenient. I don't know many words in German and I have no idea how the grammar works. We ended up playing a game that involved memorizing little cards with common objects on them and being able to recall which was which. The Swiss people had to recall them in English and I had to do it in German. I think I can still recall a few of them, though I never learned how to spell them. Maybe I'll give German a try one day too.

This morning, Ramona took me for coffee and then to the train station to see me off. She made me an itinerary because I had a lot of changes in my trip today, from trains to buses to planes, but they were fairly painless and simple. I made it to and through the airport with over an hour to spare. They were a bit confused by the candle in my bag. I'm not sure what they thought it was, perhaps a stick of dynamite. I had to take it out and let them admire its craftsmanship before they let it go through. I suppose it was adequately impressive.

I met a man whom I would consider one of the most interesting men in Europe on my flight. He refused to speak in Spanish, despite being a Spanish native and being fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, and German. He talked to me about everything from the Colombian cocaine trade to family values in Spain and Germany. He knew entirely too much about the former to not have been directly involved in it. Though that would hardly be surprising. He was a sixty-five year old cameraman that does news stories in war zones. And to top it all off, he bought me dinner on the plane. Upon our departure, he wished me luck in my endeavors and hoped that we would meet each other in another life. I hope so, he was a character.

Now I'm stuck in Madrid for another night because the buses to Teruel are all earlier in the day. Tomorrow I'm heading back to Teruel and planning my lessons for Friday and next week. My short vacation to the land of delicious chocolate and cheese is over. I'll be heading back to Kentucky soon, though, so more vacation is to come.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Off to the land of chocolaty goodness

I'm heading to Switzerland this weekend to visit Ramona. I managed to catch the two o'clock bus to Madrid instead of the later one, which worked out quite well. The bus ride was just as unpleasant as I remember. For some reason the seats, despite being cushy-looking and having the ability to recline, are less satisfying than the stiff, wooden chair I'm sitting in now. Perhaps it's because I'm prepared for the stiff, wooden chair to be uncomfortable so there is less disappointment involved. It took around five hours to go from Teruel to Madrid by bus because the bus driver was determined to check every little village along the way for more passengers. They need a radio system to check these things instead of making the bus get on and off the highway to check for people who, 90% of the time, aren't there. Instead, a trip that would normally take around three hours by car is increased by two hours in a bus. Once I made it to Madrid, I worked my way from the bus station to the metro by memory. My traumatic first experience in Madrid came in handy; vivid mental imagery makes for a great navigation tool. The metro ride was long but I managed to figure out all of the right stops and changes with some planning. I suppose Madrid isn't as horrible as I recalled once you have a decent amount of rest and you're not rolling around a hundred pounds of luggage on a broken wheel. It was actually more difficult to find the hostel that I was staying at than anything else. It is located on the second floor of a building that has a storefront at the bottom and apartments on all the other floors. I like it better than the hotel I stayed at for the seminar in September, especially considering it's only 30 euros and has free internet. Sure, I have to walk to the other side of the building to use the toilet but that's a price I'm willing to pay. The downside to staying in this hostel is that I could hear every door slam, pin drop, bell ring, and cough in a radius of what had to be ten miles or so. So now I'm going to find my way to the airport and get some breakfast at some point. It's nice to not have to worry about planning lessons for classes for a few days (until next Friday, in fact). Hopefully all goes well and I can enjoy some delicious chocolate this afternoon.