Up in the Swiss Alps

On this beautiful Saturday morning, a colleague and I headed to one of the nearby mountains in the Swiss Alps. With the warm weather just starting to kick in, it turned out to be the perfect day for a hike up the picturesque mountain.

Flumserberg, which serves as a popular ski resort during the winter, is preparing for the Summer season. Snow is still visible across the mountain, but with the weather warming up, much of it is melting, setting small streams of clear, fresh water flowing down all over the mountainside. In some places, the water rushes under thick layers of snow and ice, giving us reason to tread cautiously as we hiked up the mountain.

It took us about an hour to get to the top, and it was quite the workout! But the view from the top was well worth it.

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Searching for the “Ultimate” Swiss Chocolate

In my quest to find the “ultimate” Swiss chocolate, learning that there was a Lindt factory less than 15 minutes away from where I’m staying was like the moment Charlie finds the golden ticket in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Of course, another aspect of Switzerland that captivates our imagination is Swiss chocolate. Sure, we’ve all had Swiss chocolate before, but how much awesomer would it be to have Swiss chocolate in Switzerland?!  To go right to the source and drink straight from the maw of the gushing rivers of chocolate that flow through these lands?! So that’s what I decided to do. But which chocolate to choose? Go to the local Migros (Swiss grocery store), and there are shelves full of various Swiss brands. After trying a couple — all quite delicious — I still felt I needed to find the “one.” And so began by quest to track down the “ultimate” Swiss chocolate.

The first place I started was with my colleagues. Being Swiss or having lived here for a number of years, they, I was sure, would quickly resolve my predicament. So at lunch one day, I popped the question: Which Swiss chocolate is best? Their answer? Lindt. Seriously…? Lindt?! The very same balls of chocolate (the more technical term would be “Lindor truffles”) I can grab at a Ross discount store checkout aisle back home? Surely, they didn’t mean that Lindt? But they did. I didn’t travel halfway around the world on this quest only to go down on the first punch. I pressed on.

I turned next to Google. Surely this all-knowing, omnipotent algorithm would pierce through the “alternative facts” and “posers” and tell me who the real ultimate Swiss chocolate is?

Lo and behold, Google’s answer turned out be Lindt as well!

The Best Swiss Chocolates (as Googled)

Source: Ranker

Fair enough. It may not be the exotic answer I was hoping for, but let’s be honest, Lindt chocolates are pretty darn good. To sweeten the deal, I learned that there’s actually a Lindt factory less than 15 minutes away from where I’m staying! So, feeling the way Charlie felt when he came across the golden ticket in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I went to see for myself.

It turned out that the factory itself was not open for visitors, but that didn’t stop me from having a blast in the factory chocolate shop.

He turned and reached behind him for the chocolate bar, then he turned back again and handed it to Charlie. Charlie grabbed it and quickly tore off the wrapper and took an enormous bite. Then he took another…and another…and oh, the joy of being able to cram large pieces of something sweet and solid into one’s mouth! The sheer blissful joy of being able to fill one’s mouth with rich solid food!
‘You look like you wanted that one, sonny,’ the shopkeeper said pleasantly.
Charlie nodded, his mouth bulging with chocolate.

― Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory


Trouble in Paradise?

I heard from colleagues that on the May 1st Labor Day holiday in Switzerland there would be protests in Zürich, which had turned violent in the past. So, of course, I had to go see for myself.

Today, May 1st, is the Labor Day holiday in Switzerland — well, not ALL of Switzerland, but certain parts of the country (yes, it seems odd that a national holiday isn’t exactly “national,” but Switzerland, I’m learning, is a complex country). The city of Zürich is in an area that DOES celebrate the holiday, and as the site of the largest Labor Day celebrations in Switzerland, it is also a key site for demonstrations and protests on this day. What?! Protests in Switzerland?! Who can possibly protest against the “world’s best country”??! What do people find to complain about in a country with low unemployment, a skilled labor force and one of the highest gross domestic products per capita in the world?? Not to mention an abundance of well-preserved natural resources accessible to all??? Yup, my thoughts exactly.

So it turns out that Labor Day is also known as May Day or International Worker’s Day, a day that is celebrated across many countries in honor of workers. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know this. In my defense though, in America we don’t officially recognize May 1st as Labor Day.  Our Labor Day is on the first Monday in September, and the essence of the holiday is a day off and great discounts at your favorite retailer.  Now that I’ve Googled and Wikipedia-ed up some knowledge, I’ve learned that May Day — ironically enough — has its roots in the US, and when the US government did finally decide to designate a holiday in honor of workers, it purposely chose not to celebrate it on May 1st. You can read more about it here.

So yes, like pretty much people in all countries, even people in Switzerland have something to protest about. The primary issue this year appears to be equal pay, with Swiss unions marching under the slogan “Equal pay. Period,” demanding equal salaries for men and women (a topic we are quite familiar with in America).

Interestingly though, the demonstrations aren’t limited to Swiss issues. I heard from several folks that foreigners also tend to congregate here on May Day and demonstrate for/against specific issues. The following video from Zürich this afternoon is an example of that with the demonstrators marching in support of Rojava, a de facto autonomous region in northern Syria.

It appears that these demonstrators were also the reason for the stepped up police presence.

Besides this and a random assortment of dirty diapers strewn in front of a storefront (and some plastered against its shutter), I saw little else out of the ordinary.

Dirty Diapers
Dirty diapers strewn on the sidewalk and plastered on the storefront shutter.

Most shops and restaurants were closed, but many in the vicinity of the train station — which itself was running on a holiday schedule — were open for business. People milled about and enjoyed the balmy weather. As for me, I had a nice bike ride around town on a free bike rental courtesy of Zürirollt. Later, I got myself a nice mug of hot chocolate and had a great conversation with a lovely Swiss couple, Claudia and Corrado, while the police vans raced past.

Across the English Countryside

On a recent work trip I had the opportunity to travel across the beautiful English countryside and hear a number of different perspectives on life in the UK.

On a recent work trip I had the opportunity to travel across the English countryside. I flew into Manchester on a Saturday, took a train to Nottingham (of Robin Hood fame), and after the weekend, took another train down to London. Then after some customer meetings I drove back up to the Manchester / Yorkshire area with two of my British colleagues.

Previously, the only part of the UK I had visited was London, and that was almost 10 years ago! So it was nice to not only revisit London but to also see a much broader swathe of the country.

The English countryside is truly beautiful. One of my favorite sights is of the sheep and cows grazing in the vast, green fields. Since it’s “lambing” season right now, there are multitudes of frisky lambs meandering around with their mothers. It reminds me of my childhood growing up on a farm in Pennsylvania. It also reminds me of Shaun the Sheep, the British animated series.

Along my journey, I had the chance to connect with various people. One was a guy named Marcus, a diehard United of Manchester football (soccer) fan, who was on his way to support his team in their match in Alfreton. Another was an Australian named Dan who was backpacking across England. I also met up with my cousin, Kamran, and spent some time with his beautiful family. Additionally, a Kellogg classmate, Nene, contacted me on Facebook, and we got together for dinner at fish! in London. These meetings gave me an opportunity to hear various perspectives on life in the UK. There were some common themes. The ongoing Champions League tournament is a hot topic, especially because an English team, Liverpool – starring the global, Egyptian phenomenon Mohamed “Mo” Salah – is in the running. I even caught the Liverpool-Roma match, and wow, what a game! Liverpool decimated Roma with a 5-2 win. Mo Salah, who led the goal scoring, is truly an extraordinary player. And it’s remarkable how his success has had such a positive spillover effect for Muslims worldwide, who are enduring a period of intense Islamophobia.

The birth of the third child, a son, to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (William and Kate) is another hot topic. As I write this, the public still does not know the name of the young prince. Bookies are taking bets, apparently, and last I heard, “Alexander” might be in the running.

It is also a time of great uncertainty and anxiety in Britain (not unlike the US). Political scandals are splashing across the headlines and screens everyday (e.g., Windrush, charges of anti-Semitism against the Labour Party, etc.). Preparations for Brexit are underway. It’s fascinating to hear the different sides of the debate on this deeply controversial topic. There are many who are fiercely opposed to separating from the EU. They believe Brexit will be a huge mistake, and as proof, they point out that the value of the British pound dropped to a 31-year low following the Brexit vote. This severely impacted the buying power of Britons. Property prices in London have also dropped, as investor confidence has deflated. Many in this camp believe that the referendum that decided Brexit was fundamentally flawed. They believe that it was more a vote against David Cameron, the unpopular Prime Minister at the time, than an actual vote on whether to stay in the EU or not. Of course, there are those who support it as well. In this latter camp, many believe that the UK gave up too much as a member of the EU and can do far better on its own.

There’s also an element of anti-immigration involved, something that we are confronting in the US as well. Interestingly, this latter camp includes some immigrant groups as well. These are generally non-EU immigrants (i.e., immigrants from countries other than the European Union) who feel that their economic opportunities have been compromised due to an institutional preference for EU immigrants. They worry that this has affected not only their own futures but their children’s as well who will not enjoy the same access and benefits as their EU counterparts.

Lots of questions remain unanswered. Will Brexit actually happen? If so, will it be a “soft” Brexit or a “hard” Brexit? The former would mean little to no changes whereas the latter could upend everything. What will happen to EU citizens living in the UK? What will happen to British citizens living in the EU countries? Will Scotland use Brexit as an opportunity to secede from the UK? Will Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have to create a customs border (a very sensitive topic, given Ireland’s violent past)? Can the UK separate from the EU but still remain within a “Customs Union?” Many more questions abound, contributing to the prevailing uncertainty.

Guten Tag from Switzerland!

It’s been said before, and it’ll be said again, but wow, is Switzerland beautiful! Granted, I’ve only seen a limited area, mainly the Zurich canton area on this trip, but so far, Switzerland is living up to the hype.

It’s been said before, and it’ll be said again, but wow, is Switzerland beautiful! Granted, I’ve only seen a limited area, mainly the Zurich canton area on this trip, but so far, Switzerland is living up to the hype. What continues to strike me is how clean the place is. Prior to coming here, a colleague of mine had remarked that when you’re in Switzerland it feels like that every night, while you’re asleep, somebody goes through all the streets and vacuums up all the tidbits of trash. By the time you wake up in the morning, everything is astoundingly clean. I can see what he meant, and I’m half-expecting to catch some elves scurrying around at night tidying things up (yes, that’s a reference to the Harry Potter books, which, in my defense, we’re reading to the kids these days).

Another striking feature of this area are the snowcapped mountains ever present on the horizon. It is a breathtaking site, truly postcard-perfect (more photos below). While I think most people, whether they’ve actually been to Switzerland or not, have an appreciation for the fairy tail-like beauty of Switzerland, I don’t think anyone can match the fascination that “desis” (people of South Asian origin including Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh) have with the place. The credit for this, I believe, goes largely to Bollywood, which has been operating practically as an unofficial marketing agency for Switzerland for as long as I can remember. Of course, Hollywood has also contributed to marketing the Swiss brand, but I doubt it has matched Bollywood. An 80s’ or even 90’s kid of desi origin who’s watched even a handful of Bollywood movies can attest to this: Bollywood loves frolicking on the Swiss mountains. Be it a snowcapped mountain (where a heroine performs some seriously remarkable dance moves, considering she’s wrapped in a sari) or a lush green slope (down which the heroine inevitably rolls to her waiting love interest), it certainly seems like at least one musical interlude (of the many) had to be shot in the Swiss mountains. This has resulted in fantastic images of Switzerland being imprinted in many a desi mind. Who, after all, can forget the visual of Sri Devi (RIP) dancing on these very mountains with Rishi Kapoor in the cult classic, Chandni?

From the Bollywood hit, Chandni

As a child of the 80s who watched more than his fair share of Indian movies despite growing up in America, I can’t help but feel a certain giddiness in being here. These are the iconic images I saw in the movies growing up, and now, I’m actually here! I’m half-tempted to go running around these hills singing at the top of my lungs 😉

Not actually me. Shown for illustration purposes only.

Bulgaria

Dear Family and Friends,
After a little over two weeks in beautiful, at times confounding, Italy, I’ve landed in Eastern Europe. I arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria two nights ago after more than 26 hours on a train from Budapest. My initial plan to city-hop through Eastern Europe to use up my Eurorail Pass had to be nixed once I discovered the inefficiencies of the Eastern European railway system. Nonetheless, the train here turned out to be quite comfortable and even enjoyable, and now I’m in Bulgaria staying with a friend I met in Barcelona. It’s quite cold here — I’ve finally had to purchase a sweater — but I like it. Like I said to my friend, it feels like “autumn time in New England…” haha. Anyway, I’m here until this Saturday and then I’m off to Istanbul.

I’ve added a few entries to my blog and the pictures are updated up until Sofia, so feel free to check them out. As always, if you have any tips/suggestions/advice, please send my way!

And Ramadan Mubarak!

Cheers, ciao, salaam, and all.

And Now, Italy

Dear Family and Friends,
The last time I wrote you, I had just arrived in Marrakech. I stayed there this past week and had an amazing time. Thank you for your suggestions and advice. I will write in detail about my visit in my blog, but in the meantime, you’ll be happy to know that I’ve finally started posting pictures. Check out my blog site and look for a link to pictures on the right hand side of the page.

I flew back to Madrid on Tuesday and made it just in time to catch a 5am bus to La Tomatina festival in Bunol, a five hour drive from Madrid. The tomato-tossing festival, billed as the “biggest food fight in the world,” is, in two words, Pure Madness. Bunol, the otherwise sleepy town of 5,000, swells to 20,000 for the festival, and all are packed into the narrow streets of the old town. Then the wet clothes and tomatoes start flying, and it’s pandemonium. By the time we finished, the streets ran thick with tomato puree (sorry, couldn’t resist).  More to come in the blog.

I am now in Rome. I flew in last night, and I expect to be here for at least another two days. Then I will work my way north to see Florence, Pisa, Cinqueterre, and Venice. I am excited about finally seeing Italy and looking forward especially to the food. As always, if you have any tips/advice/suggestions, please send them my way.

I hope all is well at home!

And thanks again for your emails and comments on the blog!

Serendipitous Encounters

When I entered Mad Hostel, I noticed an attractive, Indian-looking girl at the front desk. I asked her in Spanish where she was from. “Los Estados Unidos,” she responded with a thick, American accent. I laughed and teased her in English that she needed to work on her accent. We started chatting while she waited for her room key.

Her name is Samantha, a.k.a Sam, and she hails from Ohio. She is in town because she’s starting a study-abroad program in Spain. I told her about my plan to take a train to Valencia in a few hours to try and make it to the La Tomatina festival in the nearby town of Buñol. Oh, there are two guys in the lobby booking a bus to Buñol, Sam offered. A direct trip to Buñol sounded much better than my roundabout itinerary. I thanked her for the info and found Kagan (pronounced “Kahn”) and Alex in the lobby.

The guys informed me that there was a 5:00am bus leaving for Buñol. It was scheduled especially for La Tomatina, and it would also bring us back to Madrid later in the evening. Kagan and Alex had made reservations online just then, but they weren’t sure if the reservations actually registered since it was so late. They planned to walk to the departure point and show the bus driver a print-out of the “reservation pending” notice they received via email. I decided to do the same.

It was around 3:00am at this point, so we had some time to kill. I was pretty hungry. I had seen an open restaurant on the way to the hostel, and I told Kagan and Alex I was going to grab something to eat. Alex headed to his room to try and sleep for a bit, and Kagan offered to come along with me.

Kagan, it turns out, is from Istanbul, Turkey. He’s a big, burly guy with a bushy beard and long, curly black hair. He reminds me of a bear. He has a cool, laid-back attitude, which makes him easy to talk to. It also helps with the ladies, I think. Sam, the girl back at the hostel, appeared to be infatuated with him. Kagan and I had a good discussion about politics and the especially friendly Turkish-Pakistani political relationship. I plan to visit Istanbul near the end of my tour, and I feel that my meeting Kagan is another one of those fated moments that are becoming so common along my journey.

When Kagan, Alex, and I arrived at the bus stop, there were already several people gathered there. I met many Americans, mostly study-abroad students. Several other people were in the same situation as us. They made reservations online but didn’t get confirmations. We were all there to try our luck.

I was the first to board when the bus arrived. The driver seemed nonchalant, and Kagan, Alex, and I scampered to the back of the bus, relieved that there weren’t any issues. Soon, however, a young man boarded the bus with a clipboard. He cross-checked people’s names to make sure they were supposed to be on board. My heart sank. Did this mean we would be kicked off? Before he reached us, he came across some American students who didn’t have reservations either. Instead of booting them off the bus though, he took a cash payment from them and assured them that their credit cards would not be charged. We breathed a sigh of relief, and when our turn came, we paid cash, too. The bus rumbled to a start, and we set out for the La Tomatina festival in Buñol.

There’s a moral here, folks. If you see a pretty girl, talk to her.

Return to Madrid

I set out this afternoon for one last jaunt around Valencia.  I stopped by the Central Market and had Paella at a nearby restaurant before heading to Hollywood Grill to see Naty.  Then I picked up my luggage and headed to the main train station.  There I caught a late afternoon train to Madrid.

Back in Madrid I find that the weather alone puts me in a good mood and lifts my spirits. I sat outdoors at the Raja Mahal Indo-Pak Restaurant for dinner, reveling in the warm night touched by cool breezes.  The soft murmurings of fellow diners, the tinkle of glasses, and the clink of silverware against plates soothed me somehow.  Passing cars rumbled up the brick road.  An accordion player entertained some diners down the street.  Bursts of laughter came from a nearby restaurant.  It was a lovely night.

The food was excellent.  I commended the Pakistani waiter who threw in a free chai, which was also delicious.  After dinner I attended another flamenco performance at Casa Patas.  I found this one as beautiful and compelling as the first.

City of Arts and Sciences

The motorists in Valencia, especially those on scooters and motorcycles, are a crazy sort. They don’t stop at red lights. They squeeze between cars into the tightest of spaces. They cut across sidewalks. At first I was intimidated by their recklessness. By the end of the night, however, I became one of them. I cut through red lights with impunity. I weaved through traffic from one side of the road to the other. I honked my way across sidewalks.

After I rented a scooter, I picked up Naty from her job, and we decided to find an Indian or Pakistani restaurant to have an early dinner before she left for her shift at Hollywood Grill. She looked up some places in the local phonebook and marked them on my street map. We set out to find a place, but both of the restaurants we checked were closed. Spaniards have a habit of eating late, and many restaurants close a little past noon and open again late in the evening. Naty and I decided to check out the City of Arts and Sciences instead, which I didn’t have time to see earlier. Getting there, however, was not so easy. Valencian streets are incredibly confusing. Many are one-way, so if you drive in one direction, you may very well not be able to get back. Moreover, the city is not in a grid format, which makes it much harder to navigate. Having Naty with me helped. She kept the map in front of her and told me where to go. Even still we ended up on the wrong road at one point, headed towards Barcelona. The road was a major highway with not a single exit in sight. It was several kilometers later that we came across an exit and looped back around.

We finally arrived at the City of Arts and Sciences. I parked the scooter on a nearby sidewalk, and Naty and I walked around the city. The Ciudad de las Artes y de las Ciencias as it is known in Spanish is an inspiring assortment of buildings designed by the Valencian architect, Santiago Calatrava. There’s an opera house, which looks like two fish jumping in opposite directions from the pool below. The museum looks like a bony, underwater creature. The “greenhouse” looks like the vertebrae of a fish. It’s comprised of consecutive metal arches that have vines growing over them. Eventually the plants are expected to cover the whole ceiling, forming a cool, leafy walkway underneath. All the buildings are white, and most of them are covered with white pieces of angular tiles, which makes them shimmer. There are shallow pools at the bases of several buildings. The reflection of the buildings in these pools lends them a symmetrically “round” appearance. It is a remarkable effect. All in all, the whole complex is a dazzling architectural feat.