Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Culture Shock: My Trip to Switzerland


I was inspired by Celia Farber’s “Almost Home” essay on her Web site in NYC, TheTruthBarrier.com. Here is an account of one of my trips, several years ago, while traveling to and from Switzerland on business.

It was 1987 when I spontaneously decided to take the next flight from Los Angeles to Geneva in order to safeguard the delivery of a $600,000 shipment of antiques. The insurance was kind of shaky and a collection of funds for $20,000 had to be certain. I flew British Caledonia to trail the shipment by a couple of days.

The service and cuisine on British Caledonia was outstanding. They obviously knew that they wouldn’t last long against the goliath, British Airways, unless they could provide something better. I arrived in Geneva to find the shipment waving from the rafters, some 20’ off the warehouse floor. I asked that it be moved down carefully. At this point, security was less of a problem than breakage.

The buyer was not due until the end of the week and this was only Tuesday, so I had to spend a few days in Switzerland. In asking around, many recommended a trip to Zermatt, a small village sitting below the Matterhorn, only a few hours by train.

This being April, the snow was still excellent. I had never experienced a world class ski resort and I enjoyed the atmosphere. The only thing that left me with some discomfort was my status as a single. I felt that I was constantly being appraised. Was I available or not? I found this true in Zermatt as well as Geneva.

In fact, my first night in Geneva, I wandered into a local bar and was scrutinized so severely, that I soon afterward left. One of the locals accused me of trying to corrupt their citizenry and possibly spreading “HIV/AIDS.”

When I was seated for dinner in Zermatt at an informal Italian restaurant, I was made to share a table with a straight couple.

Fortunately, at the ski rental shop, I met a young good looking Japanese guy who would introduce me to the slopes. It was all too perfect. We skied a few runs together. However, I soon realized that he was a much better skier than I, and he was growing inpatient with my delays.

On a subsequent run, I sustained a hard fall. It was made worse by a camera which swung freely around my neck. Encased in hard shell of leather, it stabbed me in the back like a blunt instrument.

By the time I regained my composure and brushed myself off, I lost sight of my companion.

I spent the balance of the day on every kind of lift from the tunnel train to the gondolas and chair lifts — miles and miles of runs.

The last lift took me to the uppermost ridge. I was just barely able to make my way down the steep and treacherous slope. The ever-present Matterhorn became somewhat oppressive and even threatening. I thought I better give up the search.

I was nearly exhausted but figured I would sleep comfortably at the quaint bed and breakfast; I managed to obtain on my arrival.

Unfortunately, my accommodation was not guaranteed for the second night. Still, I was surprised to find my suitcase in the lobby when I returned.

I suffered more indignity when because of having to walk to find lodging, my smooth soled summer hiking boots slipped out from under me on an ice patch and I landed in a heap at the side of the road.

After looking at a couple of inns, which had only Spartan accommodations, I chose to go full out and book a 5 star hotel.

Again, a maître d’ seated me to a prearranged table. I simply was not up to socializing but endured it for a quick bite to eat and an early bedtime. I was still recovering from the long day.

The next morning was made new by falling snow as viewed from my room, a picturesque town surrounding a church steeple with the Matterhorn standing majestically above. I quickly checked out and made for the train station. There was a light layer of new snow on the short walkway to the awaiting horse drawn sleigh.

I had only my umbrella in my hand and yet managed to take a colossal fall. My feet were thrown over my head and I landed squarely on my back, finding no cushion on the snow dusted rock path.

I didn’t even have a minute to assess my injury. I knew that if I didn’t catch the train now, I would loose a whole day. I managed to get myself on board without any fanfare but it was soon after, as the train picked up speed in its descent from Zermatt back to Geneva, that the surrounding passengers noticed the pain and discomfort I was in. I briefly explained my fall and a young couple directly across from me opened a bottle of Chianti. I shared it with them and others. Before long, we were all feeling good and I was back on track, recovering.

A phone call to my agent and my business in Geneva was completed. I was finally off for a weekend in London. Because of the late booking and the heavy traffic, the best I could do was to go to Frankfurt via Lufthansa and connect to British Caledonia for London. This gave me only an hour between flights and meant that I had to carry my suitcase with me until it could be checked in with British Caledonia.

So there I was, the walking wounded, a speck among the relentless throng of veteran commuters, crossing the width and length of the concourse in Geneva. Pushing my suitcase atop a small wheel device, there was no other way.

Then, without forethought or warning, we were all funneled into one escalator to be deposited at the departure gates on the floor below. No problem until a foot of my hand truck became stuck in the last step. Abruptly, everything came to a halt. I will never forget the unanimous looks of annoyance and scorn. How could I have done such a thing? There was no one else to blame. It was clearly me. What an idiot!

The plane ride was a relief but not nearly long enough. In Frankfurt, I had time to kill and I couldn’t really relax. So I stopped by a jewelry shop. Not ready to buy anything, but in passing, I asked the German lady behind the counter, “What is the present conversion rate of German Marks to U.S. Dollars?” Her obligatory curt reply caused me to ask casually, “Do I multiply or divide by that number to get the price?” Her response sent shivers through my body; “You would have me be your teacher?!!”

By the time I reached London I was dead on my feet. I was in no hurry to get my suit case and travel to London from Gatwick airport. So I spent at least an hour freshening up in the restroom. I was thinking how great it was not to be traveling with anyone. I had no one to rush me and nowhere to be.

Unfortunately, the baggage department gave up waiting for me. It was closed by the time I got there. I found a British Caledonia representative on duty. I shall never forget her. I did feel a bit sorry for the person she dug up on the other end of the phone. She would not let up on him or her until she got what she wanted. I remember her saying: “We’re not here for your convenience!” Her tenacity and command made we wish she was working for me in my office. On second thought, maybe not, I might be the one on the other end of the phone.

At the conclusion of her help, I was on the last train to London that late evening, held a booking at the Victoria Train Station Hotel in the center of London and assurance that my luggage would be there in the morning as indeed it was, at 8AM, delivered to my room.

The morning was full of promise. My first trip to London and it was to be grand. I would find fashion, art, history, entertainment, food, nightlife, pubs and clubs.

Since the rain did not stop until late morning, I relaxed and watched a BBC cable show featuring British actors. It was fascinating and absorbing. In particular was their coverage of one aged actor in a teleplay who was meticulously tearing a newspaper in vertical strips. I was impressed that such a mundane occupation should be so completely covered. The U.S. media television would never devote the seemingly endless minutes that were taken here. In any case, I had never before thought of the unique advantage British actors have over American actors. They are revered as national treasures and are quite naturally steeped in a long tradition.

I therefore appreciated meeting James Whitmore that evening. I remember him vividly. He was amid a throng of mostly male patrons where the average age was over 65. He entered the swank bar leading a small entourage and headed straight toward me. His eyes cut right into me. Not being I prepared for such a pursuit, I quickly fled the place. Strange, looking back, I can’t remember if we talked. By the way, Google reveals that Whitmore was born in White Plains, New York, died only this year at the age of 87 (twenty years older than me) and was married with two children. Most Americans knew him from his Miracle-Gro commercial.

London nightlife was easy to find, thanks to the aid of my guide whom I met at a pub early afternoon. When we parted company at four a.m. at an anonymous bus stop, he asked that we exchange addresses. I regrettably declined because I didn’t want to commit to any correspondence. His comment was unforgettable: “I guess we will just have to leave it at, two ships passing in the night.”